Why Aren’t More Students in Low-Income Communities Applying to Highly Selective Colleges and Universities?

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending the National College Access Network (NCAN) conference along with over a thousand attendees who work in college access and reform. Of the many topics discussed, one that resonated with many of us was that of selective colleges and the fact that not enough of the students who we serve were applying to them. The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, a private, independent foundation dedicated to advancing the education of exceptionally promising students who have financial need, began the discussion with: “What is the real difference between the quality of education at highly selective colleges and universities versus less selective institutions?” While I wish I could say there was no difference, I would be lying.

The truth is we often put most of our focus on getting as many students to college as possible. The efforts to make college more accessible in general should remain at the forefront of the college access movement, but it is critical for counselors, educators and advocates to start shifting conversations to encourage our students to apply to more selective schools. As the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation shared, when looking at both high and low-income students, the average graduation rate for both of these groups at a highly selective institution is above a 90%. This highlights that our students, regardless of their lower-income backgrounds, are successfully graduating at the same rate as their counterparts, in comparison to the national average graduation rate of 60%. So why aren’t we getting more students to apply to these highly selective schools? While only three percent of students at the most selective schools are low-income, it is not because they do not have the potential as that is far from the truth. The reality is many students are not applying for a few reasons.

According to the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, three of the top reasons why high-achieving students from low-income communities (scoring the same as and performing as high as high-achieving students in high-income communities) don’t apply are:

  1.   …they lack the right academic coursework. Often, students in more affluent communities have more access to advanced courses, dual enrollment, etc. Still, many students in low-income communities who may have access are often discouraged from taking these courses because of a lack of preparation. We need to stop that. Encourage them to take the more rigorous courses. It is important that we teach them to have high expectations for themselves as they have the potential and need to own it.
  2.   …they think they can’t afford it. Unfortunately, the sticker price at some of the most highly selective schools is intimidating. However, it is important for us to do our part in having conversations with students and parents about how financial aid works at these institutions. More often than not, students end up paying less at these institutions because they have more financial aid to offer and if a student demonstrates financial need, the institution will cover it.
  3.   …they struggle with the imposter syndrome. This one is very real for too many of our highest performing students. The feeling that they do not belong at a highly selective school is one of the biggest barriers for many of our students. This feeling is the one often overlooked. What a student truly needs to do is to start believing in themselves and the fact that they deserve every opportunity provided. There needs to be at least one caring adult or mentor to encourage him or her. Let’s leverage the power of mentorship.

Even if our local schools offer great pathways, our high-achieving students can have an opportunity of a lifetime if they match their potential to an institution that will challenge them and provide them with more opportunities for the future. Selectivity matters; our students deserve the best. We can be a part of changing the narrative by informing ourselves and being a consistent source of encouragement to ensure they match their potential.

What do you think?

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Alma Renteria

Alma Renteria

Alma-Delia Renteria is a proud product of Lynwood schools. After graduating UC Riverside, with a B.A. in English and a year earlier than anticipated, she decided to commit her “gap year” to City Year. After City Year Los Angeles, Alma went on to purse a teaching career with Teach For America Los Angeles. Upon joining TFA, Alma began her education career as a middle school teacher. It was while teaching that she realized the need to do her part to help serve the community she grew up in and decided to run for office, getting elected to the Lynwood School Board at only 23 years old. Alma completed her first Master’s degree in Urban Education at Loyola Marymount University and a 2nd Masters in Educational Leadership along with her Admin Credential at Concordia University. She was appointed by the Speaker to the Instructional Quality Commission and re-elected to the Lynwood School Board in 2018. She currently serves as the Principal at a local elementary school in Pico Rivera, where she hopes to demonstrate that magic is possible when thee right people are given opportunities to lead.

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