7 ways colleges can support low-income applicants better

Many talented students from low-income households are not applying to selective colleges at the rates they should be, Elissa Nadworny writes for NPR.

A recent report by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation identifies some of the reasons why low-income students make up such a small percentage of enrollments at elite colleges and universities.

To conduct the study, researchers surveyed 2,500 high-achieving high school seniors from low-income backgrounds. The researchers asked students about their motivation to apply to college, people in their lives who have encouraged them to do so, and the number and types of institutions to which they submitted applications. The researchers also surveyed about 25 nonprofit organizations that work on college access, including College Bound and The Opportunity Network, according to the report.

The study found that nearly 1in 4 high-achieving, low-income students apply to college without any help at all, Nadworny reports. Furthermore, it found that high-achieving, low-income students make up only 3% of enrollment at elite, highly-selective colleges.

Colleges can do a lot more to help these students, says Jennifer Glynn, director of research and evaluation for the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and the author of the report. She recommends seven ways to better support low-income students.

1: Decrease cost

Many students simply cannot afford the fees associated with submitting an application, Nadworny writes. It is true that many high schools offer fee waivers, but considering that the average college counselor helps about 500 students, the process of getting a fee waiver can be lengthy and tedious, she writes.

Your marketing efforts aren't reaching many low-income students

2: Be welcoming

Students from low-income backgrounds sometimes feel that they don't belong at elite institutions because they won't succeed or fit in there, Nadworny writes. She encourages colleges to re-examine their marketing to make sure students can see themselves at the school.

For example, Pomona College started highlighting students from low-income backgrounds in their promotional materials, including videos and handouts, Nadworny writes.

3: Open up

Low-income students do not always have the chance to go on college visits like their wealthier peers do, Nadworny writes. To help them, some institutions are partnering with high schools to create summer learning programs.

These programs allow students to visit free-of-cost, sometimes for several weeks. The experience allows students to get a sense of what to expect of the academic rigor, workload, and what it's like to be on a college campus.

4: Offer guidance

Applying to college can be a complex process. This is especially true for low-income students, whose parents often have not attended college themselves.

So colleges should offer some help along the way, Nadworny suggests. For example, at Amherst College, current students from low-income backgrounds act as admissions coaches for prospective students.

5: Consider everything

There are many aspects of the life of low-income students that may be invisible to an admissions officer, Nadworny writes. She cites research from the University of Michigan finding that admissions officers changed their admissions decisions for low-income applicants when they had more information about those applicants' lives.

6: Be transparent

Considering the debt burden that college can often present, students and their families need as much clarity as possible about what they'll be expected to pay if that student enrolls at an institution, Nadworny writes.

Financial aid award letters can have jargon that's hard to understand; Nadworny suggests simplifying language in these letters as much as possible. Institutions should also be transparent about potential tuition increases and fees so that they don't come as a surprise, she writes.

7: Use data

Nadworny argues that the biggest takeaway from the report is that colleges need to harness the data they have to find opportunities to make the admissions process easier for low-income students (Nadworny, NPR, 8/17; Jack Kent Cooke Foundation report, accessed 8/18).

Why low-income students aren't applying to your institution?


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