College Admissions for Low-Income Students: A Dose of Reality

The Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success, a new organization which includes that nation's most selective colleges and universities, recently surprised high school guidance counselors and college access and success organizations.
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The Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success, a new organization which includes that nation's most selective colleges and universities, recently surprised high school guidance counselors and college access and success organizations. The Coalition announced that it is developing a new college application as an alternative to much-maligned Common App. The goal of this new application is to make applying for college and financial aid easier for low-income students at under-resourced schools.

Like the founders of the Coalition, I've dedicated my career to making college and career more accessible to low-income and first generation students. I appreciate their commitment and leadership, but I also know better than most how hard it is to equal the playing field for these young people.

My organization, The Opportunity Network, helps high-achieving low-income students prepare for and launch careers. We work with them from the summer after their sophomore year in high school through college completion. Our students attend colleges like MIT and Princeton. One hundred percent graduate and almost all have landed career track jobs or are in graduate school within six months of college completion. They are bright and motivated, so they make it look easy.

But when you pull back the curtain, you see that it isn't easy; it requires years of guidance and preparation. Elizabeth Almonte arrived in the United States from the Dominican Republic at age fourteen, speaking no English. She attended a high school for English Language Learners, which offered a strong language program but no math beyond trigonometry. This future doctor had to take trigonometry twice in order to demonstrate her interest in math.

We helped Elizabeth and her family learn about the American college universe, the application process, and the financial aid process. We took her to tour colleges, arranged meetings with college admissions representatives, and provided free SAT tutoring and college advising. We also helped her find paid internships in neuroscience at Rockefeller University so she could explore her professional interests and build her resume before she started her college applications. One of our strategies is to give students the career exposure that they need to begin defining their career goals. This in turn helps them select appropriate colleges.

After Elizabeth was accepted at Union College, she attended our college readiness boot camp, a weeklong program that gives students the know-how they need to manage their time, money, schoolwork, and relationships on campus.

Will the new application that the Coalition is developing help students like Elizabeth? Right now, without having seen the final version, my answer is "maybe." Certainly, it will offer more ways for students to share their stories and life experiences, which might make it easier for nontraditional students to make the strongest cases for themselves. The Coalition also promises to make it easier to access financial aid information.

Here's my concern. The process is designed to get kids thinking about college in ninth grade. The theory is that this will give students more time to acclimate to the process and learn about college. For a typical middle class student who is acclimating to high school, that's a challenge. For low-income, first-generation students, it's even more difficult. Their challenges are compounded if the schools they attend don't have the staff to support this new process. Schools serving this population are usually stretched thin in the college guidance department. Counselors, who work overtime to get recommendations and transcripts out for graduating seniors, aren't able to focus their time and energies on college planning for ninth graders. Students like Elizabeth, whose parents don't speak English and are completely unfamiliar with the college application process, aren't able to fill in the gap.

While some students will be lucky enough to have organizations like mine in their communities, most won't.

Even after students make it through the application process and start college, enormous challenges loom. For middle-class students, arriving on campus for their freshman fall is the culmination of a years-long dream. For low-income students it can be like landing on Mars. They may not know that they can go to office hours for extra help, or to the career center to find a summer internship. They don't know who to ask for advice when their financial aid checks don't arrive in time. These challenges can quickly spiral out of control. They are a few of the reasons why only 10 percent of low-income students complete college, despite the far greater number that start.

If we want to succeed in lifting the prospects of bright, ambitious low-income students, we need to invest in many more efforts to remove the barriers that students like Elizabeth face at every step of the process.

While I was putting the final touches on this article, the Opportunity Network's Senior Manager of College Guidance Emmanuel Moses received an invitation to participate in the Coalition in order to bring the needs of students like ours to the table. The decision to involve people working directly with high school students can inject into the process a fresh dose of realism and a more comprehensive understanding of the challenges. I look forward to seeing the results.

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