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Why Few Poor Students Make It to Top Colleges

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Poor students at the top of their class have far less of a chance of getting into an Ivy League college than wealthy students with the same academic achievement.

Only 3 percent of students at the 91 most competitive colleges in the country come from families with the lowest 25 percent of income, while 72 percent of students at those schools come from the wealthiest 25 percent of families, according to a study released last week by the Jack Kent Cooke and Century foundations. (The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation also supports coverage of low-income, high-achieving students in Education Week.)

Four-Year College-Graduation Rates

Among poor students in the top quarter of their high-school class, only those who went to the most-selective colleges graduated at the same rate as top high-income students.

The study examined federal data on college selection and persistence of students at different income levels, and was supplemented by an analysis of 891 students who participated in the Cooke Scholars program. The findings dispute several myths about college-going. Among them:

Contrary to what some may think, top students don't necessarily get pushed toward top colleges. In fact, a third of academic high-fliers who are poor never apply to one of the most selective colleges in the country. And overburdened school counselors receive little training in how to advise low-income students for college.

The most-selective colleges are not always too expensive for poor students. At an average cost of $6,754 per year, a student in the lowest 20 percent of income actually had significantly lower out-of-pocket costs at a top college. The cost to attend a less-competitive school was $26,335 per year—nearly four times higher.

Athletics don't always offer a path to selective schools for poor students. The study found that the most-selective colleges did offer athletic scholarships—but mostly for "crew, squash, riding, sailing, and water polo," Harold Levy, the Cooke Foundation's executive director, said.

Boosting the numbers of low-income students in top colleges is key, the report says, because such students have higher graduation rates at those institutions.

Vol. 35, Issue 18, Page 5

Published in Print: January 20, 2016, as Why Few Poor Students Make It to Top Colleges
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