Bloomberg: Help low-income students to scale the ivory tower

 Bloomberg View editorial

America’s elite colleges are more selective than ever before. They also remain disproportionately populated by the wealthy – in part because many qualified students from poor backgrounds do not even apply.

The good news is that there are proven strategies for ensuring that promising students get the opportunities they deserve. What it takes is a concerted effort to reduce barriers and strengthen programs that give low-income kids more guidance about their college options.

Going to an elite college does not guarantee future success, but it greatly increases the chances of earning a degree. Ninety percent of high-achieving, low-income students who attend selective colleges receive degrees, compared to 56 percent of similar students who enroll at less competitive schools. A big reason is money: Richer colleges can often afford to cover the full cost of tuition for poor students and provide more resources to help them graduate.

And yet the vast majority of high-achieving, low income students aren’t even applying. Fewer than one in four high-performing students from families in the bottom socioeconomic quartile apply to any selective colleges at all. Some are undoubtedly scared off by “sticker shock” at the advertised cost of tuition, room and board.

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Others may balk at application fees, which can add up. There is also a widespread assumption that if they do apply, they will not get in.

The cumulative effect is that thousands of qualified students from poor families are missing out on colleges that will cost less and produce better outcomes than the schools they ultimately attend. Researchers even have a term for the problem: “undermatching.”

What should be done? Colleges should work together to make the application process simpler, cheaper and more transparent. They can start by using common applications that automatically waive application fees for low-income students, as more than 100 institutions have started to do. They should also make available financial aid data to nonprofit third-party services, such as Pell Abacus, which help applicants compare and calculate the actual (often discounted) cost of tuition.

States and local school districts should identify the most qualified candidates early in the process and provide them with advising resources. CollegePoint, a Bloomberg Philanthropies initiative, matches high-achieving, low-income high-school students with advisers from similar backgrounds who are recent graduates of elite colleges. Another promising experiment is the Delaware College Scholars program, a three-week summer academy for 10th, 11th and 12th graders that is focused on guiding them through each step of the college application process. More than 90 percent of the program’s graduates have enrolled in four-year colleges.

These programs require resources and commitment, but they are worth the investment. America’s elite institutions of higher education need to be accessible to working- and middle-class families. Addressing the problem of undermatching is one vital step toward offering opportunity to students who need it most.

© 2017, Bloomberg View.

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