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Washington University chancellor inauguration

Washington University Chancellor Andrew D. Martin approaches to podium to make his inaugural address on Thursday.

Photo by Troy Stolt, tstolt@post-dispatch.com

At his inauguration Thursday, Washington University Chancellor Andrew Martin set an impressive new standard for elite private universities across the country to match: granting a free education, including room and board, to students whose families earn below $75,000. We suspect the roar of applause and standing ovation his announcement received reflected feelings among alumni, administrators and students that the step was badly needed to improve the university’s image as an exclusive haven for the rich.

Washington University has consistently ranked among the least economically diverse schools in the country. In 2017, a New York Times report found that the university’s enrollment was more skewed than any other in the country toward wealth and privilege. Students from America’s wealthiest 1% of households — with incomes higher than $630,000 — represented more than a fifth of undergraduate enrollment. Only 6.1% of students represented households earning below $65,000, or the bottom 60% of the country.

Other universities have altered their tuition formulas to make attendance more affordable, but Martin’s initiative raises the bar by covering the expense of just about everything that goes into a Washington University education.

It means students from poor backgrounds can attend with virtually no worries about imposing extra financial burdens on their families, removing a major impediment to attending an elite private university.

Martin extended qualification not just to St. Louisans but to all qualified Missouri and Southern Illinois incoming freshmen. Students do not have to live below the poverty line but must be Pell Grant eligible or come from a family making less than $75,000.

This is a comprehensive plan that doesn’t dance around the edges but gets at the core of a deep-seated diversity problem at the university.

Other elite institutions have made similar efforts but haven’t gone this far. Stanford University, for example, offers free tuition, room and board provided the student’s family makes less than $65,000.

“I want to eradicate any kind of perception that St. Louis is merely Wash. U’s side gig,” Martin stated. “Rather, St. Louis should become one of our primary foci as we think through the lens: ‘In St. Louis. For St. Louis.’”

The university has previously worked to boost admission opportunities to local incoming freshmen by offering tuition-paid scholarships. But a requirement that incoming freshmen live on campus meant that low-income students who grew up just a few blocks from the university would likely have to turn down admission because their families couldn’t afford the costs of on-campus room and board.

Now, the price tag won’t serve as a primary deterrent to a quality education. This by no means guarantees that students with the brain power who previously stayed away for lack of affordability will now flock to the university’s doorstep. It does mean, however, that a financial door previously closed to them will now open wide.