Poverty Excludes Qualified College Students

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.


Empowering Low-Income Parents

Submitted by Eileen Kugler on 14 May 2013 - 2:51pm.

Empowering Low-Income Parents in the College Search

One factor often ignored is the role of families in helping their children navigate the college search. Talk to middle-class parents with a junior or senior in high school and the discussion inevitably turns to what colleges their child is considering and his or her chances of getting in. Yet low-income families are rarely engaged beyond the question of whether the child should go to college (not a given) and what college might be nearby and/or less expensive.
As you note, colleges in urban areas often have outreach to talented students from nearby low-income families and that impacts the student’s choice. That is magnified by the fact that many low-income families, particularly immigrant families, want their child to remain at home. I saw this clearly with low-income parents I worked with who recognized the need for the academic enrichment of college, but did not immediately recognize the social enrichment of living away from home.
Low-income students outside of urban areas have limited opportunities and even less outreach aimed at them or their families. If there is scant information on options, they rely on the only information they have available. The students tend to go to the nearby college, whether it is a good fit or not. As you pointed out, research shows that bright students who are not challenged at college tend to drop out.
We need to engage families in the process with the help of a culturally-competent guidance counselor or other supportive adult knowledgeable about options. This will empower low-income parents, including those outside of urban areas, to be the mentors that their children need as they navigate the college choice process.
-Eileen G Kugler, author, "Debunking the Middle-class Myth: Why diverse schools are good for all kids;" and executive editor of "Innovative Voices in Education: Engaging Diverse Communities."

My son is very intelligent,

Submitted by Melanie Wilcox on 29 April 2013 - 2:30pm.

My son is very intelligent, hardworking, and...along with us...poor. We have been homeless and without food often in the three years since my husband lost his job. Forget 'top-flight' schools. We cannot afford the ACT or SAT. We cannot afford the application fees.

We are trying to create our own work now, and so is he. But that takes time. He is thinking of moving to another country so he can find work and get an education. And, no, we are not immigrants. We are citizens of a nation that doesn't give a damn about its people.

Hi, If you have experienced

Submitted by Shannon Murray on 20 September 2013 - 9:19am.


If you have experienced or are experiencing an episode of homelessness; please contact your School Social Worker (if your school has one) or School Counselor. Mention The McKinney-Vento Act. It is a federal law that protects children and their family who are homeless.
Go here for more information as well as the definition of homelessness: center.serve.org/nche/downloads/briefs/reauthorization.pdf I am in North Carolina, so check with your school to make sure there are no differences by state or county regulations.

Melanie - I'm not sure which

Submitted by christine e-e on 15 May 2013 - 11:30am.

Melanie - I'm not sure which state you live in, but there are resources for students, such as your son. SAT & ACT tests can be waived, but it will require that you (or your son) connect with the school counselor. Once the test fees are waived, the colleges will also waive the application fees.
Also, all states have resources for homeless student education. I would suggest you find out where your local office is located (at the school district, or the county office). Free or reduced lunches (& sometimes breakfast) are available - it will require you complete some paperwork.
Again, I hope you will not give up hope. It would be a shame for your son not to take advantage of these services. Good Luck!

Melanie, I would suggest

Submitted by BK Teacher on 2 May 2013 - 6:45am.

Melanie, I would suggest looking into getting these fees waived. The SAT and many schools waive fees for people who can't afford them. http://sat.collegeboard.org/register/sat-fee-waivers

Our guidance office gave us a

Submitted by Friend on 1 May 2013 - 9:45pm.

Our guidance office gave us a waiver so that we could apply for SAT and ACT without paying, and it would also allow us to apply to six colleges without paying. If your son is intelligent and has good grades, do this. If you or your husband have not been to college, he can also "benefit" from being the first in his family to go to college. If he has good grades, apply to private schools. They have more money to give people in need. Forget state schools they have no money. Do this. Look at it as a four year plan to a better life!