Episode 127: Private Colleges for Low-Income Students?

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Welcome back from the Fourth of July break! This episode is going to be the next-to-last one in our Colleges in the Spotlight series because very soon we have to get down to the serious work of where our new crop of high school seniors should be applying to college. So, today we want to take a look at a population that we don’t focus on as much as we might–that is, low-income students who live in rural areas. Although we are based in New York City, we do try hard to look at colleges and students across the U.S. But I am guessing that students in rural areas do not get as much attention from us as they perhaps should. And, in today’s case study of a great program, we are going to talk about low-income rural students in the state of Oregon.

While you are waiting for the real work to begin in a couple of weeks, don’t forget to head on over to amazon.com and get a copy of our new book, How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students. Your teenager should be poring over it summer. You should go back and listen to Episodes 119 and 120 to find out why. By the way, I got an email this week from a smart and talented colleague to ask whether I might have time to help his rising senior with her personal statement for her college applications. So, friends, a new application season is indeed beginning.

1. What Is GEAR UP?

Before we get to today’s Oregon case study, let us say a word about a federally funded Department of Education initiative known as GEAR UP (that is, Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs). Here is what the U.S. Department of Education website says about GEAR UP:

This discretionary grant program is designed to increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education. GEAR UP provides six-year grants to states and partnerships to provide services at high-poverty middle and high schools. GEAR UP grantees serve an entire cohort of students beginning no later than the seventh grade and follow the cohort through high school. GEAR UP funds are also used to provide college scholarships to low-income students.

. . . State grants are competitive six-year matching grants that must include both an early intervention component designed to increase college attendance and success and raise the expectations of low-income students and a scholarship component. (quoted from the website)

So, here is some federal money being earmarked to improve higher education opportunities for low-income students by working with these students early in their secondary school years (that is, starting no later than seventh grade) and sticking with them through high school. That long-term assistance sounds excellent to me, and I hope that the services being provided with GEAR UP funds are indeed substantial enough to make a difference.

By the way, if you are worried about your federal tax dollars, perhaps you will be relieved to learn that the agencies receiving the federal grants are required to match them dollar-for-dollar. So, in the case of state grants, that’s half federal monies and half state monies. You can check on whether your state has any GEAR UP funds, and you can check on how those funds are being used, if you think they might be helpful to your own kids.

2. What Is GEAR UP in Oregon?

Education Week turned the spotlight on Oregon in its May article by Liana Loewus entitled “Pitching Rural, Low-Income Students on Private Colleges.” The article focuses on the way that Oregon uses its GEAR UP grant funds–which is, interestingly, to expose low-income, first-generation-to-college students from the rural areas of Oregon to Oregon’s private liberal arts colleges so that these students can consider private colleges as real and affordable options.

This strategy is particularly intriguing in a state that has two well-known and admired public universities–the University of Oregon in Eugene and Oregon State University in Corvallis, which together serve about 50,000 students. According to the Education Week article, Adrienne Enriquez, a program manager for Oregon GEAR UP, noted that both students and staff in Oregon’s rural schools “didn’t necessarily have as much knowledge and information about the private colleges in the state as they might have [had] about the four-year public universities” (quoted from the article). I think that is not surprising in a state where there are high-visibility public universities, including a much-loved flagship university, along with the fact that many of the teachers and school counselors in those rural Oregon secondary schools are very likely graduates of the two public state universities.

Oregon GEAR UP has joined forces with The Alliance, a group of 18 small private colleges in Oregon–colleges that are anxious to attract some of these low-income rural students, who probably never heard of them. The Education Week article quoted Brent Wilder, the vice president of The Alliance, as saying this:

“There are a lot of myths out there about private education that just aren’t true. . . That it’s only for affluent individuals, that our campuses aren’t diverse. . .  We have the highest graduation rate in Oregon [for] students of color.” (quoted from the article)

Wow. That statistic was so impressive that I looked up The Alliance and found out these additional facts about it and its members:

  • There are 12 college members and six college affiliates, currently enrolling about 35,000 students. Many of the colleges, I am embarrassed to say, I knew nothing about. But the members list did include Lewis & Clark College, Willamette University, the University of Portland, and Reed College, which we have talked about at USACollegeChat on our virtual nationwide tour and which is one of the best private liberal arts colleges anywhere.
  • Collectively, these colleges award one in five bachelor’s degrees in Oregon and one in two master’s degrees and doctoral degrees in Oregon.
  • 61 percent of their students graduate in four years (compared to about 50 percent at the flagship University of Oregon and about 32 percent at Oregon State University).
  • 93 percent of students starting as full-time students receive grants, averaging over $20,000 per year.
  • 28 percent of students graduate with no college debt.
  • One in three of their U.S. degree-seeking students is a student of color.

So, with these favorable statistics, it’s understandable that colleges in The Alliance feel that they have something to offer low-income, first-generation-to-college rural students in Oregon.

3. What Activities Does GEAR UP Offer Oregon?

According to the Education Week article, GEAR UP offers activities both for Oregon educators and for Oregon high school students. Here are some of them:

Through the GEAR UP program, small groups of teachers, administrators, and counselors come together from different parts of the state to visit private college campuses over a few days. GEAR UP–which was slated for a slight funding increase under a budget agreement expected to be approved by Congress last week, but is among the education programs President Donald Trump would like to cut in a 2018 budget–pays for their travel and lodging and reimburses districts for substitute teachers. (quoted from the article)

And the information goes both ways, according to the article. Oregon GEAR UP also tries to inform the professors and college admissions officers at these private colleges about the small, rural high schools that GEAR UP students attend. Having more information about these high schools and about the challenges that some of these students face can, in fact, help admissions officers make better, fairer, more aware decisions about admitting GEAR UP students.

Turning to students, here is a valuable service provided for high school kids:

For the third straight summer, Oregon GEAR UP is also running [an all-expenses-paid] Private College Week camp, during which high school students visit several colleges, staying on campus at one of them, and learn about admissions processes and financial aid. (quoted from the article)

That sounds great, but why are these visits particularly important for these rural students? Let’s look at what Ms. Enriquez said in the article:

In describing the need for this kind of program, which is unique to the Oregon version of GEAR UP, Enriquez said that visits to the larger universities were scaring off some students from rural communities.

“They’re visiting classrooms that hold more people than live in their town. They go through the lunch line and they have to go through turnstiles, and they’ve never seen those,” she said.

A few years ago, a group of students from the tiny logging community of Powers came off a tour of the 20,000-student University of Oregon not wanting to go to college at all. In a post-visit survey, they indicated, “College is not for me. It’s too big and too scary,” Enriquez said.

The colleges that students see during the weeklong summer camp generally have between 1,000 and 4,000 students. (quoted from the article)

We talked about the size of the college as a deal breaker for some kids and for some parents in our first book, How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students. (It’s still available, by the way, at Amazon.com.) But I don’t believe that I have ever heard a more persuasive anecdote about how much size can matter to a kid and about how overwhelming a large university might actually be to a kid from a tiny rural town.

4. Show Me the Money

It would be hard to have a discussion of sending a bunch of low-income kids to private colleges without tackling the very real issue of how much that is going to cost those families. The private colleges in The Alliance do actually cost about twice as much for tuition and housing as Oregon’s public universities.

But here are some useful facts and figures that take into consideration the generous financial aid offered by many of the private college Alliance members: “The average net price for low-income students at the Oregon state universities is about $13,000. At private schools . . . , it’s closer to $20,000. However, at Reed College, among the nation’s most academically prestigious private colleges, low-income students [tend to pay only] about $9,000” (quoted from the article).

So, the bottom line is that private colleges should not be ruled out in favor of only public universities because of cost. Some might be somewhat more expensive than public universities, though perhaps not out-of-sight more expensive; others might actually be less expensive than public universities. You don’t know what kind of financial aid package you can get until you try.

5. What About College “Fit”?

We hear so much these days about “fit”–that is, how good a fit is a college for your kid. Here is what the Education Week article had to say about the importance of the academic and social and cultural fit of a college for a student:

In the 2016 book Matching Students to Opportunity: Expanding College Choice, Access, and Quality, Jessica Howell and her co-authors explain that college fit, and in particular going to a school that matches a student’s academic credentials, is positively associated with earning a degree.

“By and large, we know that when students enroll in a college that isn’t a good fit for them, that’s usually because they didn’t consider colleges that would have been a better fit,” Howell said in an interview. “We need to open up students’ eyes early in the process so they know their options.” (quoted from the article)

Well, that is a perfect segue to our upcoming series, which will focus exactly on that: opening up students’ eyes so that they know their options. That could have been the title of our new book (instead we called it How To Explore Your College Options). In the coming summer weeks, we would like to help you help your teenager open his or her eyes–early enough so that there is still plenty of time to act on what he or she finds out.

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