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How can we expand college access to low-income students?

Graduating student Jennifer Lim sits in the shade before the start of the 361st Commencement Exercises at Harvard University in Cambridge, M
Graduating student Jennifer Lim sits in the shade before the start of the 361st Commencement Exercises at Harvard University in Cambridge, M

By Carol Barash

As President Obama focuses on lowering the cost of college education, he is overlooking another equally important challenge: ensuring that all students, regardless of their income level, have the opportunity to attend selective colleges.

Every year thousands of low-income students in the U.S. “under-match” in college admission, landing at colleges that are not the strongest academic fit for them. Most of these students never even apply to the best colleges they could be admitted to because they have no idea what their college options really are.

The stakes could not be higher: Over his or her lifetime, a U.S. college graduate earns nearly $3 million more than someone who has not graduated from college. Students who attend selective colleges are much more likely to graduate. And, because selective colleges tend to offer more substantial scholarship packages, their net cost to students is often lower, and students are able to graduate with less debt.

A study by Stanford professor Caroline Hoxby and Harvard professor Christopher Avery showed that students in the top quartile of academic achievement and the bottom quartile of family income are more likely to apply to lower-priced local schools that do not prepare them for a successful career, while students in the top quartile of family income are more likely to apply to more selective schools regardless of their academic qualifications.

A second study showed that when high-achieving, low-income students were informed about their college options, they applied and matriculated to more selective colleges than their peers who were not given this information.

What can we do to help low-income students attend the best universities possible?

One approach involves better collaboration between nonprofits, high schools and colleges. Colleges can work directly with national organizations like The Posse Foundation and A Better Chance, which indentify top students from disadvantaged communities and begin preparing them for college, in some cases while they are still in middle school. Colleges can provide these students with after-school and enrichment programs that prepare them for college and work. Yale provides this type of program for New Haven’s most talented arts students.

High schools and colleges can work together to ensure that low-income students study on college campuses while they are still in high school. The University of Rochester works with the CollegeBound Initiative in New York City, offering a two-year program to the most academically talented students from CollegeBound Initiative high schools. The summer before senior year, students attend a rigorous pre-college program on the University of Rochester campus. “We are investing in students’ long-term academic success,” says Assistant Dean of Diversity and Outreach Joseph Latimer. “They meet professors. They have to get themselves to class, to lunch, to the gym. All of this makes a difference when they arrive on campus for college.”

These college access programs help parents and students understand the realities of financing and attending college. “They make a huge difference both in where students apply and how they manage once they get there,” says Craig Robinson, director of the nonprofit KIPP Through College, which works in low-income communities.

The next level of access involves lowering structural barriers that reinforce inequities. The new Common Application, released on August 1, is much simpler than earlier versions, but each college still has its own labyrinth of required and optional supplements, making the process overly complicated and cumbersome. Colleges should agree on one common admissions date and one way to apply, instead of dozens of different types of rolling, early and regular admission policies. This policy would make it much simpler for students to connect with colleges that are a good fit for them academically and financially.

Once enrolled, the number one reason students fail to complete college is that they run out of financial aid. There is little utility to “lowering the cost of college” generally, since tremendous inequities throughout the financial aid process actually prevent the students who need the money the most from receiving it. So to broaden college access we need to make financial aid simpler and saner. We must create a national system for college scholarships and other forms of financial aid that is need-based on a sliding scale, relative to family income.

Schools must eliminate all scholarships that are not based on financial need. These are often called “merit” scholarships. While you can make a case that merit scholarships go to highly qualified students in a wide range of academic disciplines and extracurricular activities, the effect, overall, is to redistribute money from equally-qualified students who do not understand the merit scholarship system to wealthy students who hire paid advisors to exploit this system.

Lastly, students should not have to pay to apply for financial aid. Colleges should stop using the fee-based College Scholarship Service form (“CSS”) administered by the College Board, and use only the free, federally administered FAFSA form.

Colleges have been slow to develop the structural and cultural changes that undergird expanded access. We need to accelerate the process, creating a shared database of programs with proven outcomes that colleges can adopt swiftly to find and cultivate the most talented students, whatever their economic background. With all the other changes that technology is bringing to higher education, this tiny bit of knowledge sharing would help transform access to higher education in the 21st century. The future of our country depends on opening financial pathways for all students to attend the colleges where they are most likely to thrive.

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