Creating a College List for Students from Underrepresented Groups

High-achieving students from low-income backgrounds do not generally apply to selective colleges.

Research from 2013 supports this. Scholars from Stanford and Harvard explain that even though selective schools may cost them less than others (due to financial aid packages), such students believe they’ll fail at elite institutions. The opposite is true, however: “those who do apply are admitted and graduate at high rates.” Part of the problem, another writer suggests, is that students who fit this profile lack access to resources in high school that may help them to find the right college for them.

My Experience

I came into college access in a nontraditional manner. I went to college and earned my teaching credential for grades 7 through 12, after which I taught in urban environments with high populations of students often underrepresented on college campuses. I went to graduate school planning to study the needs of these particular students and was hired to be a research assistant for the College Access Project for African Americans at UCLA. After that, my work was targeted at using college admissions and graduation as a way to address the needs of underrepresented communities, both in and out of the classroom.

Whether these students were competitive when it came to applying to highly selective schools or not, they were almost never given enough information about the college application process. Many public high school counselors (and a lot of private school counselors, too) admitted to me that their caseloads were too large to provide detailed guidance to all students. Instead, they focus on making sure as many students as possible earn a high school diploma.

If they’re concerned with colleges at all, counselors want to ensure that students are admitted to colleges — but not necessarily those that meets their specific financial, academic, and social needs. And especially not those that provide specific supports for underrepresented groups. Counselors on the whole encourage such students to apply to institutions that have high admission rates, few scholarship options, and low graduation rates.

The Power of a Degree

When we consider what an undergraduate degree can do, we get a sense of the gravity of this gap. A degree has the ability to help someone from a low-income background earn far more than would otherwise be possible, and to end the cycle of poverty for both her family and her community.

To address this problem, my objective may be different from other college counselors: get students into the most selective school possible. There has been some debate about this; people are rightly concerned about high stress levels and about valuing prestige above all else. In my experience, however, the needs of students from underrepresented groups are unique, and this practice serves them well.

My Approach

My views regarding getting students into great schools are an amalgamation of Paul Tough’s research in character development, including How Children Succeed (2013), Casey McDermott’s analysis of a report from Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce in The Chronicle of Higher Education, and an article from a New York Times blog by David Leonhardt. Each of these authors takes an off-beat approach to writing about education and development, and bucks traditional wisdom that has come to be accepted as fact. Leonhardt’s piece, for example, investigates students who miss “hard admissions cutoffs” like an 840 on the SAT or a C-plus average in high school. Who’s to say, he asks, that these individuals can’t flourish in a college environment?

Here are a few steps I take when creating college lists for students from underrepresented groups:

1. Prioritize graduation and financial aid rates above acceptance rates.

Recently, high school student Ronald Nelson made headlines when he was admitted to all eight Ivy League schools and decided instead to attend the University of Alabama. He said that he did not receive sufficient financial aid from the Ivies.

I did not read in any news stories whether Nelson attempted to negotiate his aid package — something most students don’t realize is possible — but my concern is another data point. While 86 percent of Harvard students graduate in 4 years (and 97 percent graduate in 6), only 43 percent of University of Alabama students graduate in 4 years (and 67 percent in 6). The difference between graduating in 4 years instead of 6 could be tens of thousands of dollars of additional debt in the future.

When I work with families from underrepresented groups to create their college lists, my mind is not on admissions. Graduating from college is much more difficult than getting in, especially if (as is often the case for underrepresented groups) students are highly motivated but lack many of the supports and skills necessary to graduate. That process of continually setting and exceeding high goals — borrowing from Tough’s work mentioned above — will do more to prepare students to graduate from college and seek further success afterwards.

The fact is that top-tier schools tend to graduate students more quickly than less selective ones. According to the Princeton Review (as of 2014), for example, Stanford, Dartmouth, University of Southern California, University of Chicago, and Wesleyan University have a mean 4-year graduation rate of 82 percent, which is very high compared with other American colleges. What’s more is that nearly 95 percent of eligible students at these schools receive need-based aid.

Think about these questions: Will you graduate? When will you graduate? And how much will it likely cost you to graduate? And bear in mind that the advertised price is not the price that you’ll actually pay. You may find that the school with the costliest tuition also has incredibly high financial aid rates, so look at these numbers in relation to one another.

In a similar vein, I also look at matriculation and employment rates after graduation. Regardless of one’s means, the primary goal of college is to land a meaningful job — and potentially begin a career — shortly after graduation. Having said that, I’m always shocked at how few people seek out this information during the application process. Go to your local library or bookstore and review one of the college manuals published by third-party groups. I prefer The Princeton Review’s Complete Book of Colleges, but other companies create good manuals as well. I do not tend to use the data provided by the university itself, though this might serve as a good general starting point.

2. Compare your high school transcript to colleges’ expectations.

GPA calculation may be trickier than it seems when it comes time to apply to college. It's possible that a student may have earned a 3.8 in high school, for example, but that she has not taken many of a university's recommended (or even required) courses. The student might assume that the GPA her high school calculated is the same as the one a college will calculate, but this is often not the case, as the admissions committee will only weigh core academic courses (and not gym or many electives). The result may be that she ends up applying to schools that are way out of her reach.

This tends to be more of a problem for students from low-income backgrounds, first-generation college applicants, and students of color because their high schools may not offer as many of the college prep courses they need. Students need to be mindful of taking the correct classes and to correctly analyze their transcripts to find the right fit rather than applying to a school they may not be able to get into.

Another problem is that a growing percentage of students requires remedial instruction in public universities. This is especially important as it may force students from low-income families to spend a semester or more (not to mention the accompanying tuition dollars) taking classes on material they should have been taught in high school. It’s also worth noting that a lot of these courses don’t usually count toward fulfilling degree requirements.

3. Find schools that admit students with similar applications (and apply early).

Colleges are not always the most forthcoming with this sort of information, so I use a third-party reference to look at GPAs and scores that might roughly match a given student’s. You can try the Princeton Review book I mentioned earlier, or Noodle’s college search tool, which allows you to search according to these criteria. I also calculate admit odds based on other trends, such as the percentage of students of color the university has admitted in the previous years. You can find this information in third-party college guides, too.

I also consider whether the student will be able to attain good letters of recommendation, write a reflective personal statement, and put together an impressive resume. If applications are handed in early enough (in a non-binding context), these items have a greater impact, which is critical for students who might be a few points away from a school’s average scores and GPAs.

Colleges tend to have greater admit rates the earlier in the cycle one applies. In talking to admissions directors and officers, this is not intentional. Instead it’s due to the fact that they have more time to read an application when it is submitted in the fall (along with only a few others), rather than when the huge wave of students applies in January.

It’s also worth noting that low-income students may apply for a fee waiver on the SAT and/or college applications. You will only need your school or community organization to verify your family’s income. This waiver can also be used for college application fees and for test preparation courses, but, again, be sure to secure it early so it doesn’t hold up the rest of your application.

4. Vet colleges’ tutoring and advising programs.

A professor in graduate school once told me to consider college access in the context of college athletes. Often, these students enter with the lowest GPAs and SAT scores in their whole cohort, but they graduate in four years with GPAs that match those of their peers. When students are given tutoring and advising services while they’re in college, they graduate.

A major problem for many students from underrepresented backgrounds is their ability to write well at the college level. So I tell students to look for writing centers on college campuses first. A college may also have a central academic support program that offers advising and tutoring. Or they may host their academic support programs in a dean’s office. Either way, look on the campus or student life portions of the school’s website for more information. This is also a great question to ask when touring a campus or emailing an admissions officer.

After getting some basic facts about these supports, I look to see if the campus has other retention centers to aid underrepresented students. What are their policies on racial hostilities and sexual abuse? One of the difficulties after anti-affirmative action legislation passed is that the funding for programs based on race was cut in public universities. You can still find such programs on private campuses, however. Just as I recommended above, take a look at the student life section of a school’s website, and be sure to ask this question when visiting or emailing representatives from a school.

You can also do a simple Google search to find large or recent incidents that happened on a given campus. You may find that many universities have safe locations around campus, or perhaps escorts from the library after hours. This may help to set your family at ease. I also look for ways in which a given school is proactive in discussing sexual assault and race-based violence with all members of the student body.

5. Compare a school’s values with your family’s.

Whenever I work with a family, we do an exercise in which I have them list their values. It is important to remember that the greatest support system is one’s family — being able to identify and meet their specific goals is critical if a school is going to make a student’s list.

I ask students to complete the sentence, “I will be successful if I…” (or, for parents, “She will be successful if she…”) and to include anything that comes to mind when thinking about college. Clients have said:

  • Get a job after graduation.
  • Get into graduate/law/medical school.
  • Can spend vacations at home.
  • Can see a younger sibling grow up.
  • Still value our culture and traditions.
  • Find something to be passionate about.
  • Can get a job that pays my parents’ mortgage.

For me, this has always been the most eye-opening information, because it emphasizes the importance of college, and hopefully the true intention of going to college in the first place. And it also brings me to a sub-point: when it comes to the connection between your major and your job, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

College manuals can provide you with a general sense of the values of a student body, but you should also feel free to ask admissions officers to put you in touch with a current student or two (perhaps one who shares something in common with you) so that you can talk about things like this with a peer.

So take a look at the colleges you thought were out-of-reach and apply. What’s the worst that can happen?

We’ve got you covered if you're looking for more advice on putting together a college list or attending college as a minority student. Also, check out the free Noodle college search tool to find schools based on what matters most to you.