Earlier this month, most colleges and universities mailed out acceptance (and rejection) letters to high school seniors eager to decide where to spend the next four years. These admission decisions arrived in the wake of a recent New York Times article and Brookings Institution study revealing that despite meeting and exceeding admissions qualifications, most high-achieving students from families living in poverty do not apply to selective colleges.
Initially, I was surprised. I thought that selective colleges have been trying to be more inclusive and accessible. Many of us have heard about the Posse Foundation sending diverse groups of young scholars to a cohort of university partners. The QuestBridge scholarship also targets students from underserved communities for 35 affiliated selective schools.
Moreover, my own experience contradicted these findings. In Boston this past fall, I advised 60 first-generation, college-bound high school seniors from low-income families through the college application process. As Boston really is one big college town, many of my students had local, selective colleges on their lists, including Boston College, Boston University, Tufts, Northeastern, MIT and Harvard.
Not only did some of my students have stellar SAT scores, but many ended up teaching me about the QuestBridge process as I struggled to keep up. Many went to Posse interviews. In fact, if a student attended one of Boston Public Schools’ rigorous exam schools, a university like Harvard might have already visited the school to recruit students.
The New York Times article’s writer David Leonhardt anticipates my surprise by pointing out how major cities including Boston with a high concentration of selective universities are targeted by colleges for high-achieving students from low-income families. It turns out, however, that students from rural areas or smaller cities are not applying to elite colleges.
Not only are these students missing out on opportunities unique to selective colleges, but talented students who attend a less competitive school are also less likely to graduate than those at a selective institution. Moreover, an elite university with a full-need financial aid policy could be cheaper than staying close to home.
Sadly, this also means that students attending competitive schools are missing out. It limits the ability of colleges to have more diverse student populations and, in turn, a more inclusive environment in which to teach. Students are lacking the opportunity to learn from a classmate from a different socioeconomic status or a roommate from a quiet town 1,500 miles away. Not only is there a level of income bias perpetuated at these universities, but there is also geographical underrepresentation.
Leonhardt issues a critical reminder in his article. My own experience affects my perception and, therefore, may not be inclusive. Even though I have always been immersed in social justice work via education—and am a woman of color—I realized my own lapse of inclusion by assuming that all low-income students reside in easy-to-reach urban centers.
What can colleges and educators do to raise awareness of college options to all talented, low-income students? How do you remind yourself to keep stepping outside of your experience?
Njaka is a writer and education professional committed to social justice based in Massachusetts. She is a former Breakthrough Collaborative teacher of high-potential students.