Blocked Out: The information that lower-income students are missing

By Alison Oh

Education has been called “the great equalizer” by many, capable of leveling the playing field for a society brought up in varying circumstances. However, America’s colleges and their admission policies have continued to feed into a toxic cycle of disparity. As income inequality has continued to increase, so has the proportion of wealthy students at America’s best universities.


According to a 2017 study released by the Equality of Opportunity Project, for example, Ivy League colleges have more students from the wealthiest one percent than the poorest fifty percent, and the number has only increased over the last decade.


Why? Because high-income students are admitted by elite colleges at disproportionate rates, and their success often comes at the expense of their lower-income peers. 


Not only do lower-income students, especially those attending underserved high schools, lack access to relevant resources and information about applying to college, research has shown that many of the admissions policies used at selective colleges inherently benefit more affluent applicants.


Generally speaking, lower-income students face barriers like a lack of access to school counseling and college advising, a lack of awareness about resources available to pay for college and a lack of “college knowledge” at home, David Hawkins said, an executive director at the National Association for College Admission Counseling.


The contrast between students at underserved public schools and elite private schools like Harvard-Westlake can be dramatic. Daniel Varela ’18, who transferred to Harvard-Westlake from a public middle school, said there is a huge knowledge gap between students of varying backgrounds with regards to the college applications process.


“I had so much to learn in such a little amount of time,” Varela said. “My mom had only done community college and didn’t really understand everything I would talk about. Even when I talk to my middle school friends, they usually have no clue what I’m talking about.”


According to Hawkins, when compared to their peers, underserved students often lack access to basic information about affording college. In fact, many underserved students are unaware of many of the resources meant to help them and do not have access to information about how to apply for financial aid, obtain application fee waivers and find the financial resources to visit colleges.

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A recent NACAC report, for example, analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Education’s High School Longitudinal Study and found that students who worked one-on-one with a counselor were 6.8 times more likely to complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid and 3.2 times more likely to attend college.


“College counseling can be a critical lever for helping underserved and low-income students get into college,” Hawkins said.


The national student to counselor ratio in public schools, however, is 477 to 1, and California as a state ranks even lower, with an average of 945 students per counselor, according to the California Department of Education.  As a result, the average student spends minimal one-on-one time with a school counselor, contrasting heavily with the resources available to students at schools like Harvard-Westlake, where deans can assist lower-income students with visiting colleges and evaluating financial aid packages.


“It’s harder for low-income students in underserved schools,” said upper school dean Jamie Chan. “At Harvard-Westlake, we have an abundance of resources. [Upper school dean Celso] Cardenas, for example, can answer and help with any questions about applying for need-based financial aid and also help compare financial aid packages.”


Varela, who receives financial aid from the school, cited this abundance of resources as instrumental to his success applying to elite colleges.


“Without the economic resources that the school has to offer for lower-income students, I probably would have been limited to applying to only UC’s or just applying to the local community colleges in my area,” Varela said. “I know that with the spectacular dean system we have, the resources are compounded with the wisdom and knowledge that the [deans] posses, which is definitely something that I would have lacked at a local public school.”


In addition to large student caseloads, counselors at public schools serving predominantly lower-income students often have other time-consuming responsibilities. According to College Advising Corps Development Coordinator Kyle Goodfellow, helping students navigate the college application process often takes a backseat to more basic administrative needs within schools, leaving students without proper support.


On the other hand, counselors at better-resourced schools like Harvard-Westlake generally have more firsthand knowledge of the college process and are better-equipped to help their students.


“Most of [the deans], if not all of us, have college admissions backgrounds, so we’ve made connections with different representatives at different schools and stay in touch with them,” said Chan. “We do college visits on our own outside of the junior college tour so that we can see the campuses and bring that knowledge back to our students. That is probably the greatest resource, just our wealth of knowledge about the college process and our relationships with college admission people.”


In addition to disparities in college counseling and access to resources, recent research has revealed that certain admissions policies can benefit higher-income students at the expense of lower-income applicants.


As college admissions grows more competitive, for example, many colleges have begun to track demonstrated interest, which refers to how students show their interest in attending a certain institution. A survey conducted by NACAC found that 16.9 percent of four-year colleges give “considerable importance” to demonstrated interest as a factor in freshman admissions decisions and another 33.3 percent give it “moderate importance.”

Demonstrated interest can take the form of campus visits, contact with admissions officers and even subscribing to email lists.

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However, not all students have equal opportunities to demonstrate interest. According to a paper published in Contemporary Economic Policy, colleges weigh “costly signals” like visiting campus over less costly signals like making contact with an admissions officer at a school fair. For many lower-income students, especially those without access to college admissions resources, demonstrating interest via such “costly signals” is financially impossible.


“Whether or not low-income students are harmed by demonstrated-interest policies, if our goal is to put all students on equal footing with regard to demonstrated interest, then we should subsidize, for example, campus visits of low-income students so that all students have the same opportunity to signal their interest,” Lehigh University professor James Dearden, who co-authored the paper, said.


Co-author Lehigh University professor Chad Meyerhoefer told Inside Higher-Ed that certain students, especially those from higher-income backgrounds and those with access to knowledgeable counselors, took extra steps to demonstrate interest. This knowledge gap gives privileged students another way to benefit from the policy.


“A lot of colleges are moving away from demonstrated interest because of that factor,” said Chan. “They know that it is very expensive [to visit colleges], so they also send representatives out all over the country and do programs. A lot of them are tracking online movement instead, like what kids are clicking on the emails and the websites.”


Early decision policies, which allow students to apply and receive admissions results from colleges earlier during the process, also face criticism for potentially benefiting higher-income students. Acceptance rates during early decisions rounds are usually higher than during regular decision, but due to the fact that early decision is binding and students must commit to attending if they are accepted, some lower-income students are unable to take advantage of the policy.


According to a Cooke Foundation study, only 16% of high-achieving students from families with incomes below $50,000 applied to college through early decision programs compared to 29% of high-achieving students from families with incomes above $250,000.


Students on many college campuses have begun to speak out about the way early-decision programs disadvantage lower-income students. Student journalists at colleges like Amherst College, New York University and the University of Pennsylvania have published editorials criticizing the effects of early decision on economic diversity on campus.


In April, the editorial board of the Washington Square News, NYU’s largest student newspaper, argued that NYU’s early decision policy contradicted its mission to admit a diverse student body by favoring early decision applicants.


“Applying Early Decision may be a viable strategy to improve admissions odds for students who can afford to foot NYU’s hefty bill, but for less affluent students, Early Decision is just another barrier in a college admissions process that favors the upper and middle classes,” the WSN editorial board said.


According to Hawkins, the disadvantages built into the college admissions system are only a microcosm of socioeconomic inequality in American society at large, especially with regards to unequal access to quality education.


“The lesser-known barriers to college access for underserved and low-income students are typically aspects of our society that go unaddressed in other areas as well,” Hawkins said. “[These are] things like implicit bias, which leads to school systems thinking certain students are not ‘college material’ and slotting them into courses that are not college preparatory [and] school funding systems that rely on property taxes to fund public schools, which inherently disadvantages schools and students from low-income communities.”

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