College & Workforce Readiness

Conflicting Messages Exacerbate Student Detours on the Road to College

By Sarah D. Sparks — October 20, 2020 7 min read
Liz Ogolo, 18, who is attending Harvard University this fall, said the transition to college was difficult without guidance from her high school, which switched to remote learning in the spring.
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It’s only October, but Dallas-based Sara Urquidez is one of the many college counselors nationwide who is already “very nervous” about where her seniors will end up next fall.

While the pandemic has thrown stones onto students’ pathway into college, the road has never been smooth for prospective college-goers from low-income homes, like Urquidez’s students. And educators and their vulnerable but promising students are not on the same page when it comes to college.

Urquidez oversees college counseling in the Dallas Independent school district and neighboring charter schools through the nonprofit International Leadership of Texas. For the Class of 2021, she said, barely 10 percent of the 1,500-odd students she’s working with have started their college applications process, despite outreach this summer, compared to more than 80 percent of students in the class of 2020.

More than 9 out of 10 of her students come from low-income homes, and the bulk of them are first-generation college-goers. School closures and the city’s deep digital divide complicate Urquidez’s efforts to help.

“Our reach has been so limited compared to what it would be in person,” Urquidez said. Students who are coming to virtual college planning sessions, she said, are absorbing information “but not necessarily moving forward as fast as they would be in person … [it’s] definitely not the same as being able to pull a student out of class and say, hey, let’s get this thing done.”

In a nationwide survey in August of more than 2,100 class of 2020 graduates, as well as high school teachers, principals, and district leaders, the EdWeek Research Center found deep discrepancies between the college-going priorities adults thought they were setting for students—and the lessons high-achieving, low-income students took from those conversations.

For example, while about half of adults and students in schools prioritized writing a compelling admission essay, most other aspects of the admissions process showed gaps. More than three-quarters of educators and leaders considered it vital for students to complete advanced coursework, keep high grades in classes related to their desired major, and do volunteer work to pursue a four-year degree, but on average little more than half of low-income, high achieving students reported that educators at their school had named those as priorities for college.


The Education Week survey also found that 83 percent of adults in schools believed students needed to find colleges that were a good “fit”—something only about half of students said came up during college discussions. Even when schools do try to help students find schools that will fit them, Urquidez said, they often end up encouraging students to judge the wrong aspects of schools.

“There is an idea that you should talk about college fit in, do you want a big school or a small school or sports or Greek life? But those are all luxuries,” she said. “I think that is a misguided discussion for students because it can’t be about fit until you can afford it.”

Financial Advice Scarce

Experts argue that schools need to start having “the tough conversations with students”—about financial aid, matching, and managing the logistics of higher education during the pandemic—now to make sure students don’t miss out on college.

Indeed, the biggest disconnect that the EdWeek Research Center survey found was around how students afford college. In the survey, 85 percent of adults in the schools said they stressed the importance of applying for financial aid to get a bachelor’s degree—but only 58 percent of students said financial aid had been a priority in school discussions of college.

“Some of our seniors have taken on second, third jobs to contribute to their family right now,” Urquidez said. “Students are putting off their future because of the immediacy of what’s going on, but we know the long-term consequences of not being able to pursue higher education will be not being able to change the economic trajectory for themselves and their families.”


Julie Kampschroeder, a college and career counselor for Ritenour High School, a Title I high school in Overland, Mo., advises 1,800 high-poverty students, including 800 juniors and seniors. She said educators and advisers in schools often focus on students’ interests to help them pick schools, but she and other high school and college advisers said students need a much more comprehensive understanding of college finances, from understanding income requirements and loans to documenting tax records.

“A lot of my kids are first-generation. They might have parents who are nail salon technicians, but they are getting advice about college from their bosses at work or wealthier people,” she said. “Some of these schools are charging in tuition what these families make in three or four years. … We have to look at price first; if you don’t do that, you’ve wasted months of time up front.”

Liz Ogolo, a first-generation graduate from the Houston school district who started pre-med studies at Harvard University this fall, said she was shocked to find out how much financial work still had to be done after securing a full scholarship.

“It’s not just filling out the application and submitting a FAFSA,” Ogolo said. She had to coordinate tax returns, figure out the cheapest way to get to Boston from Houston and to buy school and dorm supplies, while continuing to attend her senior year classes and work part-time. “I’m filling out forms that I have never seen before, trying to translate a lot of official documentation and bills … looking at a tax return and trying to understand what assets are.”

Danny Tejada, a longtime college counselor in New York City public schools and now in St. Louis, Mo., said the grinding process of securing and validating financial aid can turn low-income students off college entirely. “I would say one of the greatest deterrents of low-income students is constantly having to prove their poverty and be reminded of their living circumstances,” he said. “I’ve definitely had some students in my career who could have done really great things and gone to great schools, but backed out because it was so overwhelming and demanding, especially when it came to the financial piece,” Tejada said.

Jada Freeman, one of Kampschroeder’s students from Ritenour High School started classes this fall as a freshman at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.—but thanks to the pandemic, she’s attending from her mom’s basement. Doing so does help save money on housing, but she said it also has led to losing about $2,000 of her financial aid package that would have gone to housing and on-campus costs, and made it tougher to think about balancing finances for a campus she hasn’t yet seen.

Need for Structure

The annual college census is conducted in mid-October and college admissions officers won’t know the full extent of who didn’t make it to college this fall until months from now. But Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admissions for Georgia Tech, said there’s already concern that low-income students and diverse students from the classes of 2020 and 2021 will be more likely to put off college, or stick only to local colleges during the pandemic.

Clark and Michael Keaton, the undergraduate admissions dean for Drexel University in Philadelphia, said widespread use of videoconferencing has made it easier for colleges to visit rural and distant high schools, but it’s still mostly up to individual schools to request recruiters.

“There’s systemic underfunding of resources; high schools just don’t have the advising support that’s needed to support each kid in their own individual journey. So that can lead to a triage that ultimately can build bias into the process and inequitable expectations ... guiding young people in different directions,” said Sara Allan, who leads college pathways initiatives for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. For example, students in high-poverty schools are less likely to be guided to four-year colleges and more likely to “undermatch,” or attend a school significantly less selective than their academic achievement would predict. “You see that showing up then in the patterns of which kids from which populations end up going to different kinds of institutions,” Allen said.

The Cristo Rey Network, comprising 37 Catholic high schools serving low-income students in 24 states, has developed a full 9-12 grade curriculum for college admissions, covering everything from understanding financial aid and calculating grade point averages to placement test preparation.

Stephanie Arias, the director of college initiatives for the network, argued that schools should build the basics of postsecondary planning into class requirements. She said often schools that strictly regulate the dress code or behavior of low-income students and those of color while they are in high school don’t do the same when it comes to postsecondary planning.

“I’m Latina, so I don’t take it lightly that in far too many schools, we mandate way too much of what students of color do, right?” Arias said. “But I don’t agree with the idea that people feel we can mandate where they have to stand in line and what color backpack they can use, but yet we can’t just require them to submit the FAFSA and a couple of college applications.

“Nothing ruffles my feathers more than someone saying, oh, well, they didn’t want to apply [to college],” she said. “Of course, we can’t ultimately force the student to enroll, but in their second semester, if they change their mind, it’s too late.”

Coverage of the education of exceptionally promising students who have financial need is supported in part by a grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 21, 2020 edition of Education Week as Conflicting Messages Exacerbate Student Detours on the Road to College


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