Episode 59: What’s Happening to Low-Income Smart Kids?

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What's Happening to Low-Income Smart Kids? on NYCollegeChat podcast

For a few weeks now, we have been talking about news stories about higher education—some that might immediately influence your teenager’s decision about where to apply or later about where to attend and others that might take longer to impact your family.

In this episode, we are going to take a look at a new report just out this month that could impact thousands and thousands of families every year. It has a message that needs to be heard.

I want to thank Sarah D. Sparks, who wrote about this new report at Inside School Research, one of the blogs sponsored by Education Week. Her article—entitled “Three Myths Keeping Bright Kids in Poverty from Going to Top Colleges” (January 11, 2016)—was so good that I immediately went to look for the full report. You would, too, after reading her lead:

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. (quoted from the article)

Hard to believe. She later quotes Harold Levy, former chancellor of the New York City Public Schools and currently executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which co-authored the report with The Century Foundation. Levy said:

‘College admissions for kids in poverty is profoundly unfair. . . . I thought if you were really poor and really smart you wrote your own ticket, and that turns out to be just wrong.’ (quoted from the article)

1. The Report

The 50-page report is entitled True Merit: Ensuring Our Brightest Students Have Access to Our Best Colleges and Universities. Although I can’t read the whole thing to you in this episode, I would like to present some hard-to-swallow statistics and some conclusions offered—all of which should make you interested enough to take a look at the whole report:

  • At the most competitive colleges, only 3 percent of students come from families with incomes in the bottom 25 percent of the income distribution, but 72 percent of students come from families with incomes in the top 25 percent. At highly competitive and very competitive colleges (the next two categories), only 7 percent of students in each group of colleges come from families in the bottom 25 percent. The report comments that there are “thousands of students from economically disadvantaged households who, despite attending less-resourced schools and growing up with less intellectual stimulation and advantages, do extremely well in school, love learning, are extraordinarily bright and capable, and would do very well at selective institutions if offered admissions. They are just being ignored.”
  • The report goes on to explain that the “underrepresentation of high-achieving, low-income students at the nation’s selective institutions stems from two factors: low-income students are less likely to apply to selective schools, and low-income students who do apply receive inadequate consideration in the admissions and financial aid process.” That is quite an indictment of the system.
  • Looking further into that explanation, the report notes that its authors’ “research shows that only 23 percent of high-achieving, low-income students apply to a selective school, compared with 48 percent of high-achieving, high-income students. . . . Termed ‘under-matching’ by researchers, many high-achieving, low-income students choose not to apply to schools whose student bodies have high levels of academic ability on par with their own, and instead apply to schools where the average student’s academic capacity is lower than their own.”
  • The report’s authors found that “high-achieving students from the wealthiest families were three times as likely to enroll in a highly selective college as those from the poorest families (24 versus 8 percent). Other researchers have demonstrated that this trend holds true even among the most talented low-income students who score in the top ten percent nationwide on the SAT or ACT.”
  • So, how important is it, in the long run, to attend a highly selective college? The report speaks quite clearly to this question:       “. . .       our analysis is unequivocal: high-achieving students who attend more selective schools graduate at higher rates, earn higher incomes, and are more likely to pursue a graduate degree. . . . This remains true even after controlling for [students’] academic ability. In other words, where you go to school matters.”
  • And here is one big example of why that statement is so true. In the report’s own words, “Top employers typically recruit from selective colleges and universities. And, selective institutions cultivate our nation’s leadership: 49 percent of corporate industry leaders and 50 percent of government leaders graduated from only 12 selective colleges and universities. If we want a nation where at least some of our leaders know first-hand what it is like to grow up poor, then the doors of selective institutions must be open to students from all communities. Low-income students depend on higher education as a route to social mobility, but college will never be the great equalizer if the brightest of the poor cannot even get in the door.”
  • Turning to the topic of financial aid, the report says this: “Our analysis of applications submitted through the Common Application organization (“Common App”) finds that 84 percent of high-achieving students with family incomes below $20,000 fail to obtain the Common App fee waiver for their college applications, despite clearly being eligible for one. This finding suggests that it is often a lack of knowledge about how college financial aid works that stands in the way of students applying, not students’ actual desires or financial circumstances.”
  • But here is the good news that the report offers its readers: “Research is clear that changing high-achieving, low-income students’ understanding of how college financial aid works can dramatically increase the number of applications they submit to selective schools. By sending students an inexpensive mailing costing $6, researchers were able to increase the percent of high-achieving, low-income students who applied and were admitted to a match institution by 31 percent. Other studies have found that simply sending semi-customized text messages to students’ cell phones can increase their completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), a necessary precursor to obtaining a federal Pell grant. This is a critical first step as our research suggests that only 71 percent of high-achieving, low-income students complete the FAFSA.”
  • And here is something that the report said and that we have said many times at NYCollegeChat: “While the cost of higher education has been rising for decades, the stated tuition and fees at elite colleges (especially private institutions) have skyrocketed, even after adjusting for inflation. Low-income families, seeing these ‘sticker prices,’ often fail to understand that with financial aid, attending a selective school might actually cost them less than their local public university.”

One of the scariest parts of the report for me was the section on the college admissions process—not the applications process, which is scary enough, but rather the admissions process, which is how colleges choose which students to admit from those who have applied. This section of the report does a good job of shining a spotlight on what happens behind the scenes as college admissions officers are pulled in this direction and that direction by various interest groups at the college and are faced with tens of thousands of applications to review and rank. The authors seem brutally frank in this section of the report. I have no reason to believe that it is not a true picture of what goes on, though I have no independent confirmation of it. Here is one of the conclusions that the authors draw:

The underrepresentation of high-achieving, low-income students is in large part the result of admissions practices utilized by selective colleges and universities that—presumably inadvertently—advantage privileged, wealthy students. Specifically, college and university admissions preferences provide advantages to athletes, children of alumni, and mediocre but full-paying students. Institutions compound the problem by giving advantages to students who visit the campus (which few low-income applicants can afford), apply early (which low-income students who must weigh aid packages in making college selection decisions cannot do), take the SAT or ACT multiple times and submit only their best scores (which is unavailable to low-income students who will be afforded a single fee waiver), and who do so after having been thoroughly coached (which few low-income students can afford). Additionally, low-income students tend not to have been exposed to college-level work or take AP/IB courses, which because of “weighting” by the high schools artificially inflates their GPA. Finally, the increasing reliance [on] standardized test scores in compiling an Academic Index to screen applications—so as not to overwhelm admissions officers with otherwise having to read thousands of applications—may unfairly eliminate disproportionate numbers of low-income students on the basis of small score differences, which we know are not predictive of college performance or indicative of any differences in ability. (quoted from the article)

2. What Can Be Done

Well, let’s start by saying that we probably cannot change the way that college admissions officers at highly selective colleges review applications against criteria set by those colleges. But here are some things that low-income parents of high-achieving kids can and should do:

  • Seriously consider whether your teenager should apply to a college under an Early Decision plan. If not, have your teenager apply under one or more Early Action plans, whenever possible. Either of these routes might well increase your teenager’s chance of acceptance.
  • Arrange for your teenager to take the SAT and/or ACT more than once, even if you have to pay for it. This act gives your teenager a chance to improve his or her scores, and we know that these scores are still important in most selective colleges.
  • Even better, figure out a way to get your teenager into a prep course for these college admission exams. Perhaps your school district or a nearby community center is offering one. The commercially available courses are expensive, to be sure—though even that might be worth it if your teenager’s scores need some major improvement.
  • If Advanced Placement (AP) courses are available at your high school, encourage your teenager to take one or more, if your teenager is academically ready to do so. Great alternatives to AP courses are dual-enrollment courses or Early College courses (if your high school is part of an Early College program); in both of these, students take actual college courses and earn actual college credits during high school, with the college credits typically free to the student. All of these options improve your teenager’s high school record, from the colleges’ point of view, by showing colleges that your teenager can handle college-level academic work.
  • Make sure your teenager applies for college application fee waivers, if your family is eligible. This means that your teenager can apply to a greater number and wider range of colleges since there is no cost to you.
  • Investigate highly selective colleges if your teenager has the grades and test scores to apply. Then, have your teenager apply! If you can’t get any help from the high school counselor in seeking out highly selective colleges, get help from somewhere else—a community leader, a teacher, or previous episodes of NYCollegeChat. We already know that high school counselors are overworked and underprepared to deal with many college issues.
  • Fill out the FAFSA as soon as it is available. Don’t miss the chance to apply for financial aid.
  • Once your teenager receives acceptances, encourage your teenager to go to the most selective college that accepted him or her. Hopefully, the financial aid offer from that college will make that possible.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • More resources and forms of financial assistance available at colleges
  • More ways to improve the rigor of the senior year
  • More information on Early Decision and Early Action plans

Check out these websites we mention…

Learn more about these topics in previous episodes…

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment here on the show notes for this episode
  • Calling us at (516) 900-NYCC to record a question on our NYCollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast
  • Emailing us at paul@policystudies.org to ask a question if you want us to answer it privately

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