Equity & Diversity

Groups Help Low-Income Students Enter College

By Caralee J. Adams — August 18, 2011 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 9 min read
See Yang, 17, a senior at Harding Senior High School works on her senior portfolio in her home in St. Paul, Minn., on Wednesday. The portfolio is a collection of essays, awards, community service, and school work from her time at Harding which is presented at the end of her senior year in order to graduate. Admission Possible coach, Victoria Dutcher, is helping Yang navigate the complicated college admissions process.
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story misstated the extent of the Admission Possible organization’s involvement in a student’s career. It supports students through college graduation.

Going to college was no easy feat for Abdirahman Hassan. In 2004, the then-12-year-old moved to the United States from Somalia with his brother and aunt. No one in his family had gone to college. Working two jobs to make ends meet, his aunt had no extra money for tuition.

Yet Mr. Hassan, “Abdi,” graduated from St. Paul Como Park High School in St. Paul, Minn., and has been accepted by all five colleges to which he applied. He will attend the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities this fall. He also secured scholarships to pay for his first three years.

For low-income students, getting into college often is about more than academic success. They must learn to maneuver though the complex admissions process and find the money to make it all happen. Often the first in their families to navigate this path, such students can find it overwhelming and intimidating.

At the same time, the nation’s record on helping low-income students gain access to college is not particularly good. Even elite colleges, which have long advocated more diversity in their institutions, have not been successful in significantly boosting the percentage of underrepresented groups.

New efforts, though, by nonprofit groups are emerging—alongside longtime federal programs, such as TRIO—to increase access to college for disadvantaged students.

“There is a lot of need. About 200,000 low-income students graduate from high school each year prepared to go to college but don’t end up going,” said Traci Kirtley, the director of programming at Admission Possible, a nonprofit in St. Paul with plans to expand to 10 cities by 2015. “Even when students are academically prepared, either they can’t find money to go or they don’t know how to work the process.”

Out of Pocket

Admission Possible provides free support to low-income high school students through college graduation to help them overcome academic, financial, and informational barriers.

Mr. Hassan, for instance, started as a high school junior working two hours a day, two days a week with the organization. It helped him prepare for the ACT college-entrance exam, identify potential colleges, fill out applications with special letters of circumstance, and follow a schedule that put him on the road to college.

“My college coach was like a parent to me,” said Mr. Hassan, who will major in genetics and aspires to be a doctor. “He guided me through the process.”

While the proportion of high school graduates going directly to two- and four-year colleges steadily increased overall, from 50 percent to 70 percent, from 1980 to 2009, the socioeconomic disparity is significant. In 2009, 54 percent of low-income students and 84 percent of high-income ones enrolled in college, according to National Center for Education Statistics data.

But even those from low-income backgrounds who gain entry often don’t stay. Research shows among the highest-income quartile of Americans, 82 percent have a bachelor’s degree by age 24, compared with 8 percent in the lowest-income quartile.

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The situation is likely to worsen as more students fall into poverty. The proportion of K-12 students who qualified for free or reduced-price lunch increased from 38 percent in 2000-01 to 45 percent in 2008-09, and the numbers are expected to climb.

A new study released in June by Education Trust, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization in Washington, shows the inequity in the way financial aid is distributed. In 2007, private nonprofit colleges and universities spent almost twice as much on students from families in the top quintile of family income as they did on those in the bottom quintile. Public institutions spent roughly the same amount on students from the wealthiest families as they did on those from low-income backgrounds. And in the past 10 years, states tripled the amount of aid for higher education given to students who did not demonstrate financial need as to those who did.

“There is not sufficient pressure on institutions to serve the low-income population,” said Jennifer Engle, the director of higher education policy and research for the Education Trust. “They have competing pressure to spend their aid dollars to recruit a certain profile of students that will increase their selectivity and rankings.” More support is needed for the growing low-income population to gain access to higher education if the country is going to move the needle on college completion, she said.

On average, low-income students—those whose families earned less than $30,200 in 2007 dollars—must come up with $11,000 a year of their own money to attend a four-year public or private nonprofit college, the Education Trust report found. That is equivalent to nearly 72 percent of their family income. In contrast, middle-class students—with family incomes from $54,000 to $80,000—must finance the equivalent of 27 percent of their family income, and high-income students—incomes higher than $115,400— must pay just 14 percent.

Only five of nearly 1,200 institutions reviewed by the organization met its criteria as being affordable choices for low-income students, enrolling a proportion of low-income students at least as high as the national average, and offering all students at least a 50 percent chance of graduation.

Elites and Flagships

One of those was Berea College, a small liberal arts college in Berea, Ky., that charges no tuition. The mission of this Christian school, founded in 1855 by an abolitionist minister, is to serve disadvantaged students. To operate, the school relies on an endowment, along with state and federal scholarships that students bring with them, and an annual fund drive.

Admission Possible coach, Victoria Dutcher, 23, right, is helping See Yang, 17, a senior at Harding Senior High School navigate the complicated college admissions process. Photographed at the Admission Possible office in St. Paul, Minn.

“We are the only school in America that says, ‘If you can really afford to come, you can’t,’ ” said Larry Shinn, the president of Berea, where students’ average family income is about $29,000. “We are trying to save these full-tuition scholarships for students who really have financial need.”

Elements of the college’s model are transferable to other liberal arts schools, said Mr. Shinn. For instance, it has to be more efficient with its money and it spends less per student than other colleges. “The irony is that the schools that can really afford this are the schools that have no incentive do to this,” he said. “It is the elite liberal arts colleges whose endowments are larger than ours, plus they charge $35,000 to $50,000 to each student in tuition. … They’d rather select the very top cream of the crop who are willing to pay or borrow.”

Low-income students make up just 15 percent of students at elite private colleges and flagship public universities, The Chronicle of Higher Education discovered in a survey this spring.

For students—like those at Berea—who rely heavily on federal Pell Grants, the landscape is increasingly less certain as politicians debate funding cuts, said Justin Draeger, the president and chief executive officer of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, in Washington. Students generally are reluctant to apply when they don’t know how they’ll pay for it, observers say.

“Unlike a car loan, it’s difficult to wrap your mind around the total cost of higher education,” Mr. Draeger said.

‘Mom Factor’

There have, however, been some promising consumer improvements. Colleges are now required to have a net-price calculator on their websites to help students get a customized picture of possible financial aid and total expenses. Also, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, has been simplified and shortened to make it more accessible.

To improve the landscape of access, innovative programs are popping up—some led by young people themselves.

Five years ago, Michael Carter started a mentoring program as a community-service “do-good thing” project, he says, when he was a freshman at Washington University in St. Louis. College volunteers go into high schools to provide group lessons and then work one-on-one with students for 24 weeks reviewing essays and filling out the FAFSA forms.

Now, the Strive for College Collaborative has 10 chapters on college campuses, with 200 mentors, and it plans to roll out 10 more chapters in the fall.

Mr. Carter, 23, the chief executive officer, says the program provides the “mom factor” of encouragement. “A lot of these kids’ parents are working two jobs and haven’t gone through the process themselves,” he said. “In addition to being an information source, [the mentor] is a cheerleader for the high school students.”

At first, Shanna Brancato, 18, didn’t think she could get into college because she was struggling in some of her high school classes. But a Strive mentor walked her through the application process. In the fall, she will be a freshman at San Jose State University, in California, and she says she wouldn’t be going if it weren’t for the network of support. “Strive helped me out more than I can explain,” Ms. Brancato said.

Enabling students who are at risk of failing school to get college experience while still in high school is another approach that has shown promise. The Boston-based nonprofit organization Jobs for the Future found that by blending the high school and college experience and getting support in the early-college high school model, students experience success, and the expectation gap can be eliminated.

“Students not only get the college knowledge early in terms of understanding what it takes academically and behaviorally to succeed in college, but they also amass college credit before they graduate from high school,” said Lili Allen, a program director at Jobs for the Future, which has just launched an initiative called Back on Track. It helps students who have significantly fallen off track, or who have dropped out, to transition to postsecondary education by earning college credit while finishing high school.

Nationwide, nearly 60 percent of the organization’s early-college high schools’ students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and 86 percent of their graduates go on to some form of postsecondary education.

Having the belief you can make it in college is a central factor in going, says Robyn Hadley, the author of Within View, Within Reach: Navigating the College-Bound Journey. A teacher can be that “go-to person” who sees a student daily and points out scholarship opportunities or the fact that low-income students can get fee waivers for taking the SAT and the ACT, Ms. Hadley said.

Adults need to do a better job of informing students about their options and relaying their circumstances to schools. Admissions officers want to know about an applicant’s story, which is told through personal essays, letters of recommendation, academic transcripts, and, often, open-ended questions.

“We need to convey to students there is nothing to be embarrassed about in terms of where you started,” said Ms. Hadley. “The focus here is on where you want to finish.”

Special coverage on the alignment between K-12 schools and postsecondary education is supported in part by a grant from the Lumina Foundation for Education, at www.luminafoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the August 24, 2011 edition of Education Week as Groups Help Low-Income Students Enter College


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