Equity Issues

High-Achieving, Low-Income Students Largely on Their Own in College Application Process

Concerns about college costs such as room and board and extra fees "discourage" 34 percent of high-achieving high school seniors from low-income backgrounds from applying to any college. More than two in five (44 percent) never visit their "top choice" school, and almost one in four (23 percent) apply with no help from parents, teachers or school counselors. These students had a GPA above 3.8 and SAT or ACT scores in the top 15 percent nationwide. Those findings come out of a new web survey among 2,500 students who applied for a scholarship from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which also published the research.

"Opening Doors, How Selective Colleges and Universities Are Expanding Access for High-Achieving, Low-Income Students" examines the challenges these high-achieving students face and offers guidance for how elite colleges can "open their doors wider" to outstanding low-income students.

Many of the questions students answered pointed out many small ways colleges and universities could help their candidates through the application process more effectively:

  • Did you request that the application fee be waived? Thirty-five percent respondents said they didn't request that. Among that third, almost three-quarters (71 percent) said they didn’t think they'd qualify; another 17 percent said they didn't know it could be waived. In only 6 percent of cases did the students say the fee was "automatically waived."
  • Did you visit your top choice institution's campus before deciding to apply? Half said they did — at their own expense; another 44 percent said they didn't, most because they couldn't afford to. Again, in just 6 percent of the cases did students receive financial assistance from the institution to make the visit.
  • Who helped you complete your college application? Slightly more than half (52 percent) had help from parents; 49 percent said they had help from a school counselor; and two in 10 said they had nobody's help (23 percent) or had a friend's help (21 percent). Only 10 percent said staff at the institution provided assistance.

An "action plan" offered 14 practices schools could adopt to encourage these high achievers "to apply, improve their chances of admission and encourage [them] to enroll" once they've been admitted.

A biggie: "Make clear the true cost of college attendance after financial aid." As the report explained, many low-income students and their families don't realize that the high "sticker prices" of institutions are just the starting point and that financial aid may put the actual expense below the cost of the local community college.

Another suggestion: Reduce the expense of applying to college and make the mechanisms for waiving application fees "prominent" on the institution's website.

"For generations, higher education served as a springboard to social mobility, offering a gateway to the American Dream. Sadly, that dream is no longer a reality for the many students in financial need," said Jeff Selingo, founding director of the Arizona State/Georgetown University Academy for Innovative Higher Education Leadership, who wrote the new report's foreword. "The demographics of today's college students are diverse and changing. Colleges and universities must evolve to meet their needs, and this report provides a road map."

The report is available on the Cooke Foundation website here, along with an executive summary and video.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.