How can higher ed institutions increase access for high-achieving, low-income students?
A new report from the Jack Kent Coolke Foundation found well-off students outnumber their low-income peers at selective colleges 24:1.
“Selective colleges and universities must commit to expanding access for high-achieving, low-income students and opening the doors of our higher education system to students based on true merit rather than family income,” Jennifer Glynn, Ph.D. wrote in the report, “Opening Doors: How Selective Colleges and Universities Are Expanding Access for High-Achieving, Low-Income Students.”
“To do so requires a comprehensive, campus-wide review of resource allocation, selection practices, and financial and emotional supports offered. It also requires removing inadvertent barriers and providing support so that the goal of equal opportunity for all, regardless of social pedigree, can be realized,” she said.
The report analyzed the shortcomings of higher ed as an industry in effectively enrolling students from low-income backgrounds, but it also pointed out stories of success at colleges throughout the nation; colleges like Vassar College and the University of California Santa-Barbara increased the representation of students with financial need on-campus by 8% and 7%, respectively in recent years. At Allegheny College, where admissions officers stressed a foundational ethos of offering equal opportunity, 31% of freshmen students benefited from Pell grants.
The authors stressed the importance of immediately and consistently present the cost of attendance after financial aid — there are times when the annual cost of attendance for a student at a selective school could exceed a low-income family’s entire annual income. One-third of surveyed students from low-income students reporting that high college costs had dissuaded them from applying altogether. The report also advised institutions to offer clear and concise information on the accessibility of financial aid, asserting the process was “not a time for legalese.”
Students from a low-income background said they often were unable to make campus visits due to the onerous costs involved; in a survey of high-performing students from a low-income background, the Cooke Foundation found 44% of respondents said they did not visit their top college before deciding whether or not they would apply, with 75% of that group saying it was because they could not afford the trip.
Only 6% of students who did visit a campus had their costs subsidized by the school, and the report suggested institutions invest in travel costs for low-income students to be able to visit the campus or adopt strategies like those at Texas A&M University and other institutions, which have invested in virtual reality tours of the campus for students who may not have an opportunity to visit otherwise. The institutions offers a 360-degree enabled tour for use with a headset, although there are issues of accessibility for this kind of technology as well, and only 17% of those who were not able to visit their preferred campus said they had some type of virtual tour. To increase this percentage, higher ed institutions may have to establish partnerships with K-12 schools or community organizations to ensure there is access for students to be able to take such a tour.
A lack of advisors to counsel these students through the admissions process was also an issue; survey respondents indicated that nearly one in four high-achieving low-income students had completed the college application process entirely on their own. The report suggested a variety of approaches institutions could take, including offering more advice to students upfront without requiring them to ask, and considering reminders throughout the process in the form of automated text messages. The report also suggested institutions try to standardize the process across schools; students, for example, could submit their test scores to one central application instead of having to submit them to each school in an individual process.
Higher ed institutions are increasingly realizing the need for increased collaboration with K-12 districts, due in part to the rising costs and low ROI of remedial classes for undergraduate students, but as colleges, particularly selective institutions make inroads with neighboring districts and schools to help develop better college preparation courses and programs, these institutions should work with those districts to enhance the number of available guidance counselors. School and districts work to try to ensure guidance counselors are available throughout the summer to avoid the “summer melt,” where students expected to matriculate in colleges do not show up on campus, but higher ed institutions can work to offer remote student advisory assistance, even if the student does not end up enrolling in that particular institution.
"We are currently at risk of selective institutions becoming engines of social stratification,” the report concluded. “When high-achieving students from low-income families are admitted to selective institutions, the vast majority thrive, earning high grades and graduating at rates at least equal to their wealthier peers.”