Here Is What Colleges Can do to Admit More Top Low-Income Students

Growing up, children have high hopes and big dreams. We tell them that if they study hard and do well in school they can go on to college and achieve great things in our land of opportunity. But children born into low-income families - including those who are extraordinarily bright and talented - face many financial and other obstacles blocking their climb up the education ladder.

It's long past time for colleges to remove these obstacles and create equal educational opportunity for all, so that students are judged by the strength of their academic abilities rather than the wealth of the families.

When the U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld race-conscious affirmative action in college admissions as practiced previously by the University of Texas at Austin, the court noted that "diversity takes many forms." Income diversity should certainly be one of those forms.

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, where I serve as executive director, works to help high-achieving students from low-income families reach their full potential through education. We've awarded about $147 million in scholarships to more than 2,000 students and $90 million in grants to organizations that serve such students since 2001.

A new issue brief released today by the foundation lists steps that selective colleges and universities should take to open their doors wider to outstanding students from families with modest incomes. This builds on the findings of a Cooke Foundation study published earlier this year.

Our new recommendations for actions that top colleges and universities should take include the following steps:

First, make it clear to students interested in applying for admission what the true cost of college attendance will be after they receive financial aid. Many low-income students and their parents are deterred from even applying by "sticker shock" when they see tuition prices higher than their annual family incomes. They are simply unaware that college financial aid can dramatically cut the cost. In fact, with scholarship aid the cost of attending an elite private college can actually be lower than the cost of a public college or even a community college for some low-income students.

Second, establish programs to encourage more low-income students to apply for admission. Our earlier study found that a mere 3 percent of students at America's top colleges and universities come from low-income families, compared to 72 percent from wealthy families. The low-income students who have received Cooke Scholarships have proven that they can excel at America's most elite colleges and universities. But many students from families of modest means assume that gaining admission and being able to pay for the costs of attending such institutions is an impossible dream.

Third, make the college application process simpler. Many low-income students are the first in their families to go to college and can't turn to parents or siblings for help applying, as more affluent students do.

Fourth, admit students based on their academic record and achievements without discriminating against those who require financial aid - a policy called need-blind admissions - to the greatest extent possible. Money set aside for so-called "merit aid" not based on financial need should be shifted to go to students who require financial aid to attend college.

Fifth, recognize the barriers that low-income students have overcome when evaluating their suitability for admission. For example, the parents of low-income students can't afford to give them many of the advanced learning opportunities wealthier parents can provide, the students often must hold jobs during high school that make it impossible to participate in extracurricular activities, and the students often go to schools that lack adequate resources and offer few college-level courses. Excelling in the face of these and other obstacles is a strong indicator that a student is bright, ambitious and a hard worker - just the type of student colleges want.

And sixth, remove other obstacles too numerous to list here that disadvantage low-income students in the admission process. For example, colleges should examine the admission preferences for athletes. At selective schools, recruited athletes are as much as four times more likely to be admitted than similarly qualified applicants. But many athletic scholarships are awarded for sports like squash, sailing and water polo, which are not played in the vast majority of public high schools. In another example, colleges should examine the value of continuing the admissions preference for so-called "legacy" applicants - students whose parents or relatives attended the college. Most low-income students do not have college-educated parents.

More than ever, a college degree today is needed to get a good job and a middle-class income. It has become the gateway to the American Dream. This makes it critically important to enable people of all income, racial and ethnic groups in our great and diverse nation to have the opportunity to attend college based on academic merit, and for the brightest among them to be able to attend elite schools where they can fully develop their talents.

The actions we are recommending for America's top college and universities will not just improve the lives of the outstanding low-income students who benefit directly. They will improve the lives of all Americans by tapping into the talents of young people who have the ability to build a stronger, more prosperous and more just future for our nation.

Former New York City Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy is executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which has awarded about $147 million in scholarships to more than 2,000 high-achieving students from low-income families and $90 million in grants to organizations that serve such students.