Special Education

Three Myths Keeping Bright Kids in Poverty From Going to Top Colleges

By Sarah D. Sparks — January 11, 2016 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

If you are at the top of your class in a high-poverty school, you have a significantly better chance of dying in a car crash than attending an Ivy League school.

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 new study released this morning by the Jack Kent Cooke and Century foundations. (Full disclosure: Editorial Projects in Education, which publishes Inside School Research, has a grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation to support coverage of low-income, high-achieving 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.

As states explore the best approach to ensuring their kids are “college and career ready,” there’s always criticism that college simply isn’t for everyone, and focusing on four-year universities might be the wrong approach for students with a more entrepreneurial than academic bent. That may be the case, but the data in the True Merit report suggest that the current system is remarkably bad at getting even the most academically promising students to a top college if they come from families in poverty.

“College admission for kids in poverty is profoundly unfair,” said Harold Levy, the executive director of Jack Kent Cooke.

During his own time as chancellor of New York City schools, Levy said, “I thought if you were really poor and really smart you wrote your own ticket, and that turns out to be just wrong.”

There’s a lot to dig into in the study, but here were three findings that went against common myths on college-going:

Myth 1: Top Students Will Automatically Get Pushed Toward Top Colleges

In fact, a third of poor academic high-fliers will never even apply to one of the most selective colleges in the country.

The study found very limited professional development available for counselors, and no states require counselors to have training in how to advise low-income students for college. Moreover, it found the average case load for high school counselors in high-poverty schools is 500-to-1, and in some states, like California, that ratio can go as high as 1,000-to-1.

“You might as well do counseling with a bullhorn,” Levy said. As a result, he said, many low-income students do not investigate the academic or financial aid options for college fully. “At every point along the way, there is a failure to comprehend that low-income, high-achieving kids are fragile.”

Ironically, the study found that at the most selective schools, poor students were as likely as their high-income peers to maintain a 3.0 GPA and graduate.

Myth 2: The Most Selective Colleges Are Just Too Expensive for Poor Students

If a bright-but-poor student wants to go to college, it may be cheaper to shoot for a highly selective school, the study found.

A student in the lowest 20 percent of income had significantly lower out-of-pocket costs for college—even after including room and board—if he or she attended one of the most selective colleges, at an average of $6,754 per year. The cost to attend a less-competitive college, by contrast was nearly four times higher, at $26,335 per year.

Moreover, of poor students who were in the top 25 percent academically in their senior year, only those who went to the most selective schools graduated at the same rates as high-income students with the same academic proficiency. High-income students graduated at roughly similar rates from schools with selective or open-access admissions, but school selectivity made a big difference for low-income students:

Myth 3: Athletics and Other Extracurriculars Offer a Path for Poor Students

It also turns out that athletic scholarships aren’t that helpful for high-achieving, low-income students during the admissions process.

The study found that the most-selective colleges did offer athletic scholarships— for “crew, squash, riding, sailing, and water polo,” Levy said. “There are not a lot of those sports in Harlem and Watts.”

Overwhelmingly, the study found admissions offices still use scores on ACT and SAT exams to do triage on the thousands of applications they receive. Author and researcher Jennifer Giancola of Jack Kent Cooke also noted that early applications are three to five times more likely to gain admittance, though high-income students are likelier both to participate in entrance-test-prep courses and to submit multiple applications early.

“Most of the kids in poverty walk into these tests cold,” Levy said. “You take it once, and that’s what decides your future.”

The foundations argued that high schools should consider more focused training and support for college counselors, and higher education admissions offices should consider a “poverty weighting” as an indicator of academic achievement and resilience when choosing new students.

“Under no circumstances, are we saying reduce ability, reduce talent” in the admissions process, Levy said. “We’re talking about recognizing the achievement when a low-income kid is able to achieve the same without the benefits received by high-income kids.”

The study used the Barron’s Classifications for higher education, which compares college selectivity based on the average grade point averages, SAT or ACT entrance exam scores, and high school rankings of their freshman classes, as well as the percentage of applicants it generally accepts. The “most competitive” 91 colleges included, for example, Harvard University and Amherst, while the “highly competitive” 102 colleges included the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. The 641 “competitive” schools included Indiana State University and the University of South Dakota, while the 187 “less competitive” schools included Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, and the 57 “noncompetitive” institutions included Kaplan University.

Charts source: True Merit, Jack Kent Cook Foundation


A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.