Are Colleges Doing Enough to Recruit Low-Income Students?

A recent study has found that lower-income students are not attending college at the same rate as their peers from higher-income families. What are colleges doing to recruit low-income students, and is it enough?

What — if anything — are four-year colleges doing to recruit low-income students?

A recent study by the American Council of Educators found that low-income students (those in the bottom 20 percent of all family incomes, according to Pew) are not attending college at the same rate as their high-income peers.

“Since 2008, the percentage of all high school graduates who immediately enroll in college has fallen from 69 percent to 66 percent in 2013. However, the proportion of low-income high school graduates plummeted during that period from 56 percent to 46 percent,” the study revealed.

Indeed, the White House previously published a report drawing attention to this issue and recommending the following suggestions to ameliorate specific barriers low-income students face when applying to college: (1) Connecting more low-income students to colleges where they can succeed and encouraging completion once they arrive on campus; (2) Increasing the pool of students preparing for college; (3) Reducing inequalities in college advising and test preparation; and (4) Seeking breakthroughs in remedial education.

Recruiting and Retaining Students

Colleges have already stepped in to address the first of these suggestions. Because the issue is complex, colleges’ targeted efforts to reach and enroll low-income students require constant maintenance, and receive ongoing scrutiny. David Leonhardt, among others, has asserted that many colleges aren’t doing enough to recruit low-income students. There are 3,000-plus colleges and universities in the U.S., and while some have enormous endowments and financial aid budgets, many do not. Schools without these resources depend on a certain percentage of students who can pay full price for tuition. In the end, all colleges — from the richest to the most modest — make choices about what’s important to them as they admit their first-year classes. As Leonhardt points out, “Economic diversity is within the power of any top university,” but “the question is whether the university’s leaders decide it’s a priority.”

So how do we measure whether colleges are doing enough to bring in low-income students? This year’s College Access Index lists schools that have a 75 percent or higher five-year graduation rate; it takes into account and is based on the share of students who receive Pell grants, as well as the cost of attendance. At the top of the list are five colleges from the University of California system, which makes a four-year degree more affordable through an expansive community college transfer program. Enrolling for the first two years at a California community college, achieving a strong GPA, and taking the right courses enables students to transfer to a four-year flagship campus like UC–Irvine, UC–Davis, or UC–Santa Barbara.

Other states, such as Maryland and Virginia, have also established community college transfer pathways; and in Pennsylvania, students can transfer from satellite campuses to the main Penn State campus.

Reaching Out to Students

There are nationwide initiatives connecting underresourced, first-generation college students to many of the colleges included in the College Access Index. Questbridge, for example, connects 36 top colleges with high-achieving, underserved youth. These students are awarded need-based financial aid when they pledge to attend one of the Questbridge partner colleges if accepted. Colby College, Pomona College, and University of Notre Dame are among the partner institutions.

Some efforts have come from nonprofits that have partnered with colleges to offer scholarships. One such organization, the Posse Foundation, is built on the premise that students are most likely to succeed when they attend college with a group of peers from a similar background. Posse offers a key to college success by preparing its scholars to attend college before they enroll and continuing mentorship during the course of their bachelor’s degrees. It offers the kind of support that many college students don’t realize they need until they arrive at school.

Other outreach comes directly from colleges themselves.

Colleges with high visibility and high graduation rates, as well as those that want to be more well known, often send admission officers or deans of admission to major cities to talk to prospective students. In urban areas, the most selective universities — like Harvard, Stanford, Duke, and UPenn — tend to focus such visits on public high schools with talented low-income, minority, and first-generation college students. They invite guidance counselors to morning meetings at downtown venues, and hold evening programs at the same venues for students and parents.

Students should be sure to pay attention during junior and senior year to publicity surrounding these visits — and to attend them to get firsthand information about admissions, costs, financial aid opportunities, and scholarships. Numerous colleges will pay for minority or disadvantaged students to visit their campuses, either in the fall before students apply, or in the spring after they are admitted.

Many colleges have also taken steps to make the admissions process itself more affordable. For first-year admission, it’s usually not difficult for students with high financial need to get a waiver of a college’s application fee. Students need to see their high school counselors about this to determine income criteria. For students who have also used a fee waiver to take the SAT, the College Board offers four application fee waivers that may be used at participating colleges.

Looking Forward

In my experience as a former admissions officer, applications at selective colleges are read with socioeconomic context in mind. Smart, underresourced, and underrepresented kids who managed to take the toughest courses, achieve required test scores, and contribute to their family, school, or community are sought-after applicants. Students who have to work twenty hours a week outside school, whose parents didn’t go to a four-year college, or whose parents work at blue-collar jobs, are less common in selective applicant pools — that is, those from which 40 percent of applicants or fewer are accepted. Such students stand out as having a presumed, or often evident, desire for advancement that’s noteworthy. Admissions officers don’t typically have a problem recognizing a student who overcomes unfavorable odds and works hard to succeed. The issue is getting even more of these students into the applicant pool.

Even when we accomplish that, enrolling low-income students and others from diverse backgrounds is only a start. These students often self-segregate once they are at school because they are in the minority. (That said, where income levels are concerned, the “minority” may be bigger than we think: A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education revealed that a surprising number of undergraduates are food-insecure.) Frank Bruni has argued that “even if a school succeeds in using its admissions process to put together a diverse student body, it often fails at the more important goal that this diversity ideally serves: meaningful interactions between people from different backgrounds, with different scars and different ways of looking at the world.” In some cases, he asserts, affinity groups (associations of students with shared backgrounds or interests) are to blame — though this view is controversial, as many feel that affinity groups ensure that all students have safe spaces on campus.

While the solutions are not always clear, in this case, some fundamental problems are: Not only is it imperative to bring low-income students to campus, and not only is it crucial to ensure these students find support before and after they’ve been accepted to college, but it’s also vital to all students that colleges find ways to ensure that underrepresented students, and students with a long history of college-going families, find ways to engage meaningfully with each other. There is much work still to do.

Read the latest updates and opinions on education-related news, and ask the colleges you’re considering how they support low-income and underrepresented students.

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