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Giving Poor Kids a Chance at an Elite Education

A growing concern of American’s elite colleges, according to David Coleman, president of the College Board, is that classes are filled with predominantly upper class students.  Researchers at Stanford and the University of Virginia decided to explore whether high achieving, low-income students didn’t apply toselective colleges because they did not want to or because they did not understand that they could.

Researchers sent admissions information to 40,000 high achieving, low-income students during their senior year.  Included in the packet was information regarding admission standards, graduation rates, and financial aid policies.  For the purpose of the research, application fees were waived if students applied.  A control group with similar demographics did not receive the packets.

Within the control group, researchers report that only 30% were admitted to a college matching their academic qualifications.  Among similar students who received the packet, 54% were admitted to the most selective colleges.  Researchers concluded that there are many low-income students who are well prepared College for selective colleges and would opt to attend if they understood the process.

David Leonhardt, writing in the New York Times, says that the packets that students received presented the important information that selective colleges frequently cost less than local colleges because they have more resources for scholarships.  Leonhardt is quick to point out that low-income students who graduate from less selective colleges still do very well, but graduation rates from these second or third tier colleges are lower.

While recruiting low-income students will add to the diversity of the student body, it will also prove more costly to the universities.  However, some feel that the efforts would resonate with alumni and result in more alumni giving.

One issue that neither Leonhardt nor the researchers consider is how well low-income students adjust socially to highly selective colleges.  Getting in is one thing; staying in is another.  In my experience in rural upstate New York, hard working guidance counselors could help bright kids gain acceptance to selective colleges.  However, often students would drop out or change colleges not because of the academic challenges, but because of the social disparities they felt.  If selective colleges are sincere in wanting to increase diversity, they need to help students adjust socially as well.  Not every student at 18, however bright, can negotiate the social systems without guidance and a strong network of support. 



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