American Talent Initiative aims to increase socioeconomic diversity at Vanderbilt

By joining the American Talent Initiative, Vanderbilt hopes to encourage 50,000 additional Pell eligible students to attend college by 2025

Last year, Vanderbilt joined the American Talent Initiative (ATI), a national organization that hopes to bring high-talent, low-income students to top universities. The program especially focuses on recruiting students who are eligible for the Pell Grant, a federal program that provides financial aid for students with the highest need.

Supported by a $1.7 million investment from Bloomberg Philanthropies, ATI is a coalition of universities, including Vanderbilt, that acts as a think tank to achieve their goal of increasing Pell eligible college attendance by 50,000 students by 2025.

“ATI really started with a founding group of less than a dozen universities,” Vice Provost for University Affairs Douglas Christiansen said. “We in the United States really have to think about access and opportunity, especially for Pell eligible students. It was seven or eight universities in the beginning who said, we have to think differently.”

Historically, if a university’s number of Pell eligible students increased one year, perhaps the number of Pell eligible students at a nearby institution would decrease. ATI encourages these top universities to collaborate with each other to increase Pell eligible numbers among all American educational institutions. ATI’s goal of increasing the number of Pell eligible students by 50,000 does not just apply to Vanderbilt – it is an overall goal shared by every member of the organization.

In order to reach this number by 2025, the members of ATI developed strategies to implement four broad goals.

“We are engaged in a much more directed and robust outreach to Pell eligible students,” Christiansen said. “The second focus is ensuring that admitted Pell eligible students enroll, because they get admitted but we have to yield them. And then, retention after they enroll. And last, continuing to prioritize need-based financial aid through Opportunity Vanderbilt, and minimizing and eliminating gaps in progression and retention rates.”

To meet these goals, Vanderbilt and other members of ATI focus on the recruitment of Pell eligible students by reaching out to Community Based Organizations (CBOs). CBOs such as Posse, QuestBridge and Kipp Schools are increasingly acting as college counselors for many high school students across the United States, especially in low-income areas where budget cuts may eliminate these programs.

“Community-based organizations don’t bring us students,” Christiansen said. “Programs such as Posse and QuestBridge identify students. ATI is more of a strategic catalyst thinking group, and by pulling schools like us and Princeton and Yale together, we can exchange ideas. And we learn from each other, and we figure out the best practices.”

Vanderbilt faculty and staff also work to keep the retention rate and graduation high for Pell eligible students by providing resources and support for all students on campus. After joining ATI, Vanderbilt increased its number of Pell eligible freshman students from 13 percent in 2016 to 15 percent in 2017. This number increased significantly after Vanderbilt created the Opportunity Vanderbilt program in 2009, but the percentage of Pell eligible freshman every year has remained stagnant until now.

“I think that speaks to our climate, it speaks to people feeling included, it speaks to our faculty, who I really believe go above and beyond what a standard faculty member nationally perhaps would do,” Christiansen said. “So, it’s our climate on campus, our welcoming, our support system. And it’s intellectually engaging. If it’s a boring place, you don’t want to stay.”

According to Christiansen, Vanderbilt has had strong retention rates for Pell eligible students in past years (89 percent for Pell eligible students and 93 percent for all Vanderbilt undergraduates). Through joining ATI, Vanderbilt hopes to further increase retention rates and the number of Pell-eligible students on campus by providing them with the support they need, especially through the financial aid program Opportunity Vanderbilt.

“The Pell Grant is $5,400, but it costs more to attend Vanderbilt,” Christiansen said. “Opportunity Vanderbilt fills that gap. How do we reduce loans, and how we eliminate loans to make sure students who are low-income, middle-income, and even high-income who only need $5,000 to attend Vanderbilt? Opportunity Vanderbilt is for the whole, and you can really see the growth here.”

The members of ATI must meet certain criteria to join, including having a six-year graduation rate consistently above 70 percent. Both public and private institutions, these schools, such as Princeton, Yale, Columbia, Duke, and Dartmouth, are all highly selective.

Vanderbilt was part of a group of 30 institutions to join last year. According to Christiansen, administrators spent a year preparing and implementing the four focus areas and the strategies to achieve them.

“I think it will have a resounding effect here still because by then, it will be so embedded in our practices,” Christiansen said. “What we’re going will become a system, it will become a part of who we are in our daily operations.”

In the long term, Christiansen does not believe that the mission of ATI will end after 2025, when he hopes it will meet its goal of increasing Pell eligible college attendance by 50,000 students.

“We’re really trying to say, you are welcome,” Christiansen said. “If you have the ability to be here academically and by our holistic admissions process, then we want you to come.”

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Caitlin David (2020) is a writer for the Campus section of the Vanderbilt Hustler. From Alpharetta, Georgia, Caitlin is majoring in Economics and Human & Organizational Development. In her free time, Caitlin likes to read, go for runs in Centennial Park, and explore coffee shops in Nashville.

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