Students at Harvard: Smart, hardworking and statistically less likely to come from poor families. Photographer: Kelvin Ma/Bloomberg
Students at Harvard: Smart, hardworking and statistically less likely to come from poor families. Photographer: Kelvin Ma/Bloomberg

How well are the nation's top universities doing at opening their doors to low-income students? One way to answer that question is to look at the share of undergraduates who receive federal Pell Grants, which are awarded based on financial need. There's no income cutoff for those grants, but 75 percent of the students who received them in the 2011-2012 academic year had family incomes of $30,000 or less.

As the chart above shows, the portion of Pell Grant recipients at those schools is far below the national average for full-time undergraduates.

That said, some schools are doing better than others at closing the gap. In 2003-2004, Harvard and Yale had almost the same portion of Pell recipients, about 10 percent. By 2011-2012, Harvard had almost doubled its share, to 20 percent; at Yale, the level was just 14 percent.

That's not an accident. Starting in 2004, Harvard began a campaign to attract more low-income students. The numbers suggest that campaign had an impact. And if it can work at Harvard, maybe it can work at other selective colleges, too.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View's editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.