The Great Divide: Help Low-Income Students Get into Big-Ticket Colleges

The exclusion of low-income students at the best schools results in a devastating waste of potential. What can you do to help students who are short on cash but accomplished academically?

According to a recent New York Times article, America's most exclusive colleges and universities are largely populated by the country's wealthiest students. The article points to a Georgetown University study that found that only 15% of entering freshmen at the most selective colleges came from the bottom half of the nation's income distribution, while 67% came from the highest-earning fourth of that distribution.

This disparity stems from the simple fact that high school students who come from more affluent families have certain resources that low-income students may not have access to. For example, wealthier students can pay for things like SAT tutoring and impressive extracurricular activities that colleges view favorably, and children of alumni may have the added benefit of legacy admission.

The New York Times piece also looks at the work of Anthony Marx. In his role as president of elite Amherst College, Marx set out to overhaul the school's admission policies and help lower-income students gain access to a quality college education. In his inaugural address, Marx expanded on his philosophy:

"Our responsibility remains to select the best of diverse students, to learn from each other. To ensure that they balance learning and effort of mind, spirit, talent and body. To fire in them a life desire for learning and moral reasoning and action. To inpsire to do what the college was founded for--to enlighten, care for and advance society as a whole, and its faith, within and beyond our borders."

While Marx was able to begin changing the tide of economic diversity at Amherst, well-moneyed students still have a leg up at most of the country's preeminent institutions. The exclusion of the lower-income demographic results in a devastating waste of talent and potential. So what can you do to help your students who are short on cash but accomplished academically?

Look for money

You've no doubt encountered students who have the grades but not the funds to get into an excellent college. Help these students research schools that have strong programs in their proposed fields of study. Then narrow down the list further by finding the ones with the best financial aid programs and those with need-blind admission policies. Some schools offer scholarships to students whose families fall below a certin income bracket. For example, for the Harvard Class of 2016, parents earning below $65,000 to $150,000 per year will be asked to contribute between zero to ten percent of their income. Check out this impressive list of schools where financially disadvantaged students don't have to take out loans. Many schools also offer options like payments and locked-in tuition rates that can help ease the financial burden of a college education. And there are countless outside scholarships available for students from all backgrounds. Begin the search here at CollegeXpress.

Make an appearance

Students interested in schools that seem beyond their financial means should strongly consider paying visits to those campuses. Help them by making a list of the people they need to talk to and the questions they need to ask. And encourage them to look for opportunities to engage with current students, who will have first-hand knowledge of things like the financial aid process and the affordibility of campus life. If the schools are out-of-state and travel would be cost-prohibitive, help them find contact information for admission and financial aid advisors so they can get on the phone or fire off a few emails. Making contact with--and a positive impression on--school officials can give a major boost to an application by demonstrating a history of strong interest and initiative.

Consider community college

How many times have you heard students make the claim that their collegiate game plan involves taking their "basics" at a community college and then transferring to a four-year school? Despite the stereotype that they'll invariably end up dropping out of said community college, it can be an excellent option for highly motivated students looking to save a little (or a lot!) of money. In fact, some selective institutions are beginning to favor transfer applicants from two-year schools in an attempt to admit more low-income students.

Top schools like UC Berkeley have become increasingly accommodating in this regard. And many four-year schools have articulation agreements with community colleges, which can offer guaranteed admission (with certain stipulations) and make the transfer of credits a seamless process. Check out the Postsecondary Sourcebooks for tons of information on two-year schools your students can consider.

As a college counselor, you are an essential part of a student's support system. Financial woes can be highly discouraging and only add to the stress of the college admission process. But with the proper resources, a lot of hard work, and a little encouragement, they'll find that no one has to be born with a silver spoon in their mouth to get the education they deserve.

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About Stephanie Farah

Stephanie Farah

Stephanie is a former writer and senior editor for Carnegie Darlet and CollegeXpress. Stephanie holds a BA in English from the University of Texas at Austin and a master's in Journalism from the University of North Texas. At various times she has been: an uncertain undergrad, a financial aid recipient, a transfer applicant, and a grad student with an assistantship and a full ride. Stephanie is an avid writer, traveler, cook, and dog owner. 


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