Low-income students face a range of barriers to accessing college, and research has found that talented students from low-income households still don't apply to selective colleges at the rates they should. To tackle this problem, many elite colleges and universities are partnering with nonprofits to identify and recruit ambitious, disadvantaged students, Nick Anderson writes for the Washington Post.
According to a 2012 study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, more than 25,000 low-income students rank in the top 10% on SAT or ACT test scores every year. But hardly any of them go on to apply to selective colleges.
Many of these students are either unaware of the options available to them or feel constrained by their financial situations. Some simply undervalue their potential. Low-income students see public or community colleges as “accessible, inexpensive, and convenient,” Anderson writes. They "just don’t get why it is that they should be interested in applying to a selective college," researcher Caroline M. Hoxby explains.
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Selective colleges are trying to tackle "undermatching," but don’t have the resources to reach underserved students. High-achieving, low-income students don’t fit into the traditional recruiting model of prestigious colleges. Many of these institutions rely on "feeder schools" to supply them with students (who are typically affluent), and although many Ivies have expanded financial aid considerably, they need new recruiting strategies to reach economically diverse students.
In the past five years, elite colleges have turned to pipeline programs like QuestBridge and Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America (LEDA) to recruit ambitious students with financial need. These organizations travel across the United States to find students; they reach out to counselors and gather tips from older scholars to ensure no student is overlooked.
"We're looking for a cohort of super-bright young people who have tremendous leadership potential," and who are "representative of our country in many diverse ways," LEDA Executive Director Beth Breger says.
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These programs identify students and connect them to prestigious colleges, advising them through the entire application process. For example, LEDA enrolls students in a seven-week leadership conference to explain the college application process, then continues to guide students and families all the way through enrollment. Other programs, like CollegePoint, connect low-income students to online advisors through computers and cellphones.
The programs are almost as selective as the colleges themselves, with a program like LEDA admitting only 8% of more than 1,250 applicants each year. But the benefits to students are well worth the effort to write essays and gather recommendations. Programs like LEDA have a considerable impact on a student's likelihood of getting accepted to an elite college; the admission rate at Stanford University for LEDA students sits at 58%, compared with the university's overall rate of 5%.
For Eriana James, a first-generation student from the south suburbs of Chicago, the LEDA program not only secured her a spot at Georgetown University, but also helped her build confidence. "We feel as if we are not enough. [LEDA] had a different narrative for me. They highlighted that my potential and ambition overrides my racial and economic association" (Anderson, Washington Post, 3/27).
Learn more: Two ways to help first-generation students navigate your college's 'hidden curriculum'