College & Workforce Readiness

Helping Low-Income Students Onto Campus

By Caralee J. Adams — May 24, 2010 2 min read
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Despite efforts to make college more accessible to low-income students, it’s still a struggle. Check out the “5 Myths about who gets into college,” by Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, in the Sunday Washington Post.

It’s disheartening to read the evidence that shows higher ed still has a long way to go in providing equal opportunity for all classes of students. For instance, 74 percent of students at the most selective universities come from the richest quarter of the population, and just 3 percent come from the bottom quarter.

University leaders say they want socioeconomic diversity and have enacted policies to make higher education more equitable and offered generous financial aid packages. Yet, the gap exists.

“We are missing out on a lot of talented, hard-working kids who could contribute a lot to society,” says Kahlenberg. “Universities will provide a better educational environment for all students if they have socioeconomic diversity. Classroom discussion will be richer if students from all walks of life are presented.”

So, what can be done to improve the situation?

On campuses, Kahlenberg’s main message is that college-admissions officers should look not only at a student’s academic record, but also the obstacles he or she had to overcome. “Almost all admissions officers will say that they do that already, but the data suggests they are not putting much weight on the economic disadvantages that students face,” he says.

Being low-income or a first-generation college student doesn’t have the same advantage in the admissions process as being an underrepresented minority, children of alumni, or a recruited athlete. While generous financial aid is important, without the admissions break, the proportion of low-income students will continue to lag, Kahlenberg found in his research.

In high schools, counselors should encourage students who are hard working and talented and low income to highlight those facts on their applications. Many universities are “need blind,” so they don’t discriminate against low-income students, says Kahlenberg. But at universities that want to promote socioeconomic diversity, it’s good for students to explain their academic record in context—for example, if they held down two jobs or their parents didn’t have the same opportunity to go to college.

While more affordable, Kahlenberg says high school counselors should not steer low-income and working-class kids to community college. His new research shows that only 10 percent of those who go to community college will get a four-year degree. “Going to a more selective college for any student increases the chances of graduating,” says Kahlenberg. Although more rigorous, there is more money spent per student and better supports for struggling students.

Finally, when the research shows large gaps in SAT scores between low-income and advantaged students, the big fix points back to inequality of opportunity in K-12 schools, says Kahlenberg. The answer, he contends, lies in deconcentrating poverty and creating middle class schools with mixed income environments.

It’s a complicated issue, but one that policymakers need to tackle to close the gap and give deserving students at a disadvantage a chance.

For more on the topic, look for the new book edited by Kahlenberg, Rewarding Strivers: Helping Low-Income Students Succeed in College, published by Century Foundation, to be released in June.

A version of this news article first appeared in the College Bound blog.