How to send poor kids to top colleges? 2 Suggestions

Last week, in the New York Times, David Leonhardt wrote about an analysis of SAT takers, which indicated that more low-income, high-achieving students,

  • do not apply to selective colleges for which they have the aptitude, and
  • often do not graduate from the less selective colleges they do attend.

I wrote about his report and two others here. I really hadn’t planned to write about this again, but I must admit to a weakness for studies followed-on promptly by possible solutions. This week, these articles presented ideas on how to help change this.

1.  Tell them:  Make better efforts to inform. 

Leonhardt returned to the topic with How to Send Poor Kids to Top Colleges. He presents the results from an effort to identify whether high-scoring, low-income students didn’t want to apply to selective colleges or they didn’t know about the opportunities available to them.

THE packages arrived by mail in October of the students’ senior year of high school. They consisted of brightly colored accordion folders containing about 75 sheets of paper. The sheets were filed with information about colleges: their admissions standards, graduation rates and financial aid policies.

. . .
Among a control group of low-income students with SAT scores good enough to attend top colleges — but who did not receive the information packets — only 30 percent gained admission to a college matching their academic qualifications. Among a similar group of students who did receive a packet, 54 percent gained admission, according to the researchers, Caroline M. Hoxby of Stanford and Sarah E. Turner of the University of Virginia.

. . .

Perhaps most important, the packets presented a series of tables making clear that college is often not as expensive as many students and parents fear. Selective colleges frequently cost less for low-income students than local colleges, because the selective ones have the resources to offer bigger scholarships.

At the less-selective campuses in the University of Wisconsin system, for example, the average net annual cost for a year of tuition, room, board and fees in 2010-11 was almost $10,000 for families making less than $30,000, Ms. Turner said. At the flagship campus in Madison, by contrast, the equivalent net cost was $6,000. And at Harvard, such students paid only $1,300 a year.

That last bit — about understanding the different net costs for colleges — shouldn’t be surprising. Even those parents and students who study the process closely can have a difficult time predicting what the net costs at a variety of schools might be, since much depends upon the interest/value a particular student in a particular cohort holds for that college. College pricing is closer to the multiple prices-per-seat-on-a-plane model than one might imagine.

Illustration by Ted McGrath, for the New York Times.

Illustration by Ted McGrath, for the New York Times.

2.  Sell them:  Follow recruiting methods used by the military.

Responding to this same topic in an op-ed piece, Elite Colleges are as Foreign as Mars, published in the New York Times, Claire Vaye Watkins, a writer and English professor at Bucknell, wrote

For deans of admissions brainstorming what they can do to remedy this, might I suggest: anything.

By the time they’re ready to apply to colleges, most kids from families like mine — poor, rural, no college grads in sight — know of and apply to only those few universities to which they’ve incidentally been exposed. Your J.V. basketball team goes to a clinic at University of Nevada, Las Vegas; you apply to U.N.L.V. Your Amtrak train rolls through San Luis Obispo, Calif.; you go to Cal Poly. I took a Greyhound bus to visit high school friends at the University of Nevada, Reno, and ended up at U.N.R. a year later, in 2003.

Ms. Watkins provides a role model:  the military recruited very well by sending uniformed alumni back to the high school and by providing guidance on how to enlist, while the school provided classroom time to take the Armed Services aptitude test.

Granted, there’s a good reason top colleges aren’t sending recruiters around the country to woo kids like me and Ryan… The Army needs every qualified candidate it can get, while competitive colleges have far more applicants than they can handle. But if these colleges are truly committed to diversity, they have to start paying attention to the rural poor.

Until then, is it any wonder that students in Pahrump and throughout rural America are more likely to end up in Afghanistan than at N.Y.U.?

No wonder, indeed.

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