The Real Reasons Why Low-Income Students Don’t Apply To Elite Universities

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As a former high-achieving, low-income student, who now teaches at a college serving other first-generation college students, I sighed when I read that top colleges were responding to studies that show students like me were not applying to their institutions by reviewing their recruiting techniques. These poor students, the thinking went, simply didn’t know about the best colleges: all the colleges needed to do was send out more brochures and emails! Who doesn’t love a cheap fix? But the lack of economic diversity on prestigious campuses will not be solved by better marketing. Students’ reasons for failing to apply are not quirky, or the understandable missteps of the young. They are rational responses to factors that never cross the minds of the more privileged.

Yes, some gifted poor students fail to apply to more selective colleges because they aren’t aware of their existence. When I was seventeen, I thought any college degree was an achievement: I did not realize that where I earned a degree made a difference. And it’s true that I lacked role models who attended any institutions of higher learning, let alone top-ranked ones.

But by placing the onus of change on students, we cover up the very real factors that lead to decreased social mobility. Consider, for instance, the graphic the New York Times ran that labeled students’ decisions to apply to one selective college and one local, nonselective college as “idiosyncratic.” This reminded me of the young man I met in graduate school who was so shocked that I had never been to Europe that he spent twenty minutes exhorting me to go. The idea that financial concerns could direct life experiences did not register with him. He believed that my failure to travel was a choice; I merely waited to be persuaded.

Like international travel, applying to multiple colleges is not a matter of choice, but a luxury. Applications require fees, as do the test results many colleges still request. When I came to apply, my list was short until my high school guidance counselor breezily informed me that the fees could be waived. She wrote a magic letter, and presto! Those not insubstantial sums, which would have prevented me from even trying for a seat in many a freshman class, disappeared. Who knew the fees were negotiable? Even now, I am grateful for her help, but also aware that not every talented student in my high school was offered this hidden assistance.

A high school guidance officer quoted in the Times laments the “inclination to stay local,” though he calls it understandable. But dismissing such a choice as a quirk that must be explained sweeps financial hardship under the rug. Attending a far-off college means the necessity of living on campus rather than at home, always a pricier proposition. It means expensive travel arrangements: a preference perhaps sometimes, but a necessity during breaks, when dorms and dining halls close on some campuses. It means having access to a vehicle that is spacious, and up to a long journey. And so on.

If a student’s family is living hand-to-mouth, staying local can also mean helping out with the family finances. Certainly we can say this should not be an eighteen-year-old’s responsibility. But if you were the child of a struggling single mother, with more siblings at home, what choice would you make? Do we want to raise a nation of students willing to sacrifice their loved ones for their own advancement?

Every student deserves to attend a college that challenges him. In my experience, many dedicated people at less well-known institutions work hard to help poor but talented students stay in college. Some argue that low-income students are more likely to make it to graduation at selective colleges. But that does not mean the smaller, less prestigious ones are letting their students down. The students who stay near home may have been those with more disadvantages. In other words, they may be part of a self-selected group, already facing the worst odds of graduating.

I learned when I went to UCLA for graduate school that attending a prestigious institution opened doors. But I had already learned of the many doors to success I could not open. Privileged students start their careers by taking on nonpaying internships, while their poorer classmates work summer jobs. They enter highly competitive fields thanks to family connections. We are fooling ourselves if we think improving admissions practices alone will even the playing field.

If highly-ranked colleges and universities truly want to attract these students, they will need to better understand the factors that drive them to less selective schools. Some of these factors will require larger societal fixes. Until then, staying local may just be the most rational choice.

Lisa Orr, a professor of English at Utica College, is the author of “Transforming American Realism: Working-Class Women Writers of the Twentieth Century.” Her novel, Sweatshop Cinderella, is represented by Shannon Hassan of the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency. Follow her on Facebook:

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