Many high performing students from lower income backgrounds are failing to recognize the huge advantage they have in gaining admissions into highly selective colleges and universities.

In the article, Elite Colleges Struggle To Recruit Smart, Low-Income Kids, Shankar Vedantam notes the challenges faced by top colleges and universities to identified qualified candidates from lower income backgrounds:

“If this is like most years, administrators at top schools such as Harvard and Stanford will try hard to find talented high school students from poor families in a push to increase the socioeconomic diversity on campus and to counter the growing concern that highly selective colleges cater mainly to students from privileged backgrounds.”

Although the information and support we are providing through our partnership with the Turner Chapel AME Church Education Ministry is being replicated by organizations in other parts of the country, there are still far too many students lacking access to the necessary support. For example, In the Houston Public Radio article, Ivy League 101: Helping More High Achieving, Low-Income Students Apply to Best Colleges, Laura Isensee notes how the Houston Independent School District’s Emerge program is expanding college access for students from lower income families by working with over 300 students from 12 Houston high schools:

“We have students at Harvard, Tufts, Dartmouth,
Oberlin, and MIT.”

The research paper by Caroline Hoxby (Stanford University) and Sarah Turner (University of Virginia) of The Hamilton Project, Informing Students about Their College Options: A Proposal for Broadening the Expanding College Opportunities Project, provides insight into the need for closing the widely research “College Knowledge Gap.

“Most high-achieving, low-income students do not even
apply to selective colleges despite being highly qualified
for admission and success at these institutions. Because they
do not apply, these students forgo the generous academic
resources, increased financial aid, and better collegiate
and career opportunities that selective schools offer.”

Professors Hoxby and Turner discuss the “Expanding College Opportunities (ECO) Project” and cite four important elements their research addresses, which has been validated in a variety of research studies pertaining to:

  1. Undermatching
  2. The College Knowledge Gap
  3. Graduation rates for high achieving, low-income students attending selective colleges and universities is substantially higher than the graduation rates of such students attending colleges where they are “undermatched”
  4. Such students receive greater amounts of scholarships and grants, and lower amounts of student loan debt when attending selective colleges and universities

However, their research also addresses an important fifth element that is missing in many other research studies—the impact on low-income communities:

“High-achieving, low-income students are the natural role models for their
communities. High-achieving, low-income students are potentially the greatest
future college ambassadors to low-income students. Their authentic
experience of a life transformed can make them powerful advocates
and policy leaders who understand the issues that plague low-income
students who are striving to obtain a world-class education.”

In our work with students, this little researched aspect of expanding college admissions and scholarship opportunities, represents perhaps THE most significant element. Expanding the opportunities of students from low-income backgrounds, low-performing schools, and from families where students are the first in the family to attend college has a profound impact on family and community constructs regarding postsecondary pathways.

Organizations such the Gates Millennium Scholars, Posse Foundation Scholars, and Simon Scholars are having profound impact on students, families, schools, and communities each year. For example, not only do the students who are selected as one of the 1,000 Gates Millennium Scholars each year provide hope for their communities, students who are not selected are enriched through the process and end up applying to highly selective colleges and universities. The same is the case for both students who are selected as Posse Foundation Scholars and those who apply, but are not selected. Here in Atlanta, Gates Millennium Scholars who attend the Atlanta University Center work with Atlanta Public Schools students each year in preparing their GMS applications. Their efforts have significant as Atlanta Public Schools students lead the state in the number of students selected as GMS recipients. Through these and other volunteer efforts they are having a profound influence on the community as they continue expanding their own leadership capacity.

Although students certainly should be aware of the following four programs, there are many more local, state, regional, and national programs counselors and organizations should identify:

We are also working with students as 11th and 12th grade cohorts in college application packaging, scholarship research, essay writing, résumé writing, interviewing, and college research. Through this process we have gained perspective into what Professors Hoxby and Turner propose in their study. We believe that the ECO Mailing Packet they propose expanding in their paper can certainly be helpful for students. However, that is not enough as we believe that the information must be supported by the type of grassroots organizations that have been working with such students for many years and who have been experiencing measurable success in widening the postsecondary pathway for such students.

The formation of our 11th and 12th grade cohorts is in response to our experiences in which high performing students continued to make poor college choices and to miss out on important scholarship opportunities, despite being presented with all of the necessary information. Providing the information is an important element, however, connecting students to people willing to guide them through the process is critically important.

Their paper goes on to reinforce other research indicating some of the challenges confronting high achieving students from low-income backgrounds:

  • Students are poorly informed about the application strategies typically used by students who generate a strong portfolio of admission offers.
  • Students are poorly informed about what college will actually cost.
  • Students are poorly informed about the differences between colleges.
  • Students are not aware that they are eligible for testing and application fee waivers.

Responding to these challenges will require “Information” and “Guidance Through the Process.” Additionally, it will require interventions during elementary and middle school if we are to substantially increase the number of students from low-income backgrounds who among raise to the ranks of high achieving students who are qualified for admissions to selective colleges and universities.

Students from low-income families may have many college options available to them if they can navigate the oftentimes difficult, time consuming, and tedious college admissions process to selective colleges and universities. However, if students are willing to commit the time to researching colleges and to preparing quality college admission packages, there could be tens of thousands of dollars in financial aid awaiting.

The Washington Post article, “Getting more poor kids into college won’t fix income equality” points out some of the benefits of President Obama’s push for colleges to expand the admissions pathway for students from low-income backgrounds (Obama proposes college-rating system in bid to increase affordability) through increased accountability in such areas as average tuition, percentage of low-income students enrolled, and the amount of student loan debt accumulated by students. More information about colleges would be available on the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard website.

In an attempt to expand the college pathway for low-income students, the University of Chicago is simplifying the application process, eliminating the expectation that students work during the school year, providing summer internship opportunities, expanding their career counseling support, and no longer require submission of the CSS/Financial Aid Profile.

The U.S. News and World Reports listing of “Economic Diversity Among the Top 25 Ranked Schools” provides insight into those colleges that may have the most supportive policies and programs for students from low-income backgrounds.

Click here for the U.S. News & World Reports listing of the 100 most selective colleges and universities in the United States.