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Experts Say Low-Income Students Most Often Miss College Planning Help

Students from lower-income families aspire to college as much as their more affluent peers, but high schools and colleges should still provide targeted assistance to such families to ensure that they are better positioned to turn their college dreams into a reality.

That was one of the major recommendations made Thursday during a College Board Advocacy & Policy Center webcast of a panel discussion, titled “Complexity in the College Admission Process: Low-Income Students.”

Although survey data show that lower-income students place a higher value on higher education than their more affluent peers—for instance, 48 versus 36 percent, respectively, agreed that they need a college degree to succeed—one of the biggest areas where low-income families need help is understanding issues of affordability, panelists said.

“Higher education, we have to do more to create financial aid and assistance policies that will open access to all students,” said Arlene Cash, Vice President for Enrollment Management at Spelman College and a member of the College Board’s Admissions in the 21st Century Implementation Committee.

“(High school) counselors must figure out how to help students and parents understand the difference between what they can afford and what is expected in the college-paying process,” Cash said.

Cash shared how she has often seen how students or families of lesser means have a particular college in mind that is more costly than they can afford, and attempt to go forth on the notion that they’ll find the money “somehow,” be it through prayer or extra effort.

“Students have to have more options,” Cash said. “The more options they have on college, they may not be stuck at the end saying, ‘I had one college, and I thought we could work it out, and we can’t, so I guess I won’t go.’”

The mission of the Admissions in the 21st Century Implementation Committee is aligned with what is known as the “college completion agenda,” an effort being promulgated by various foundations and the Obama administration to dramatically boost college degree attainment rates in the U.S. over the next decade or so.

“That’s the sole purpose of all the work,” said Bruce Walker, Vice Provost of Special Projects at the University of Texas at Austin and chairman of the committee.

To further this end, Thursday’s panel called mostly for stepped up and specialized efforts to provide more information, guidance, tools and resources to low-income families, as opposed to a set of innovations.

“It’s not (a matter of) inventing new things,” said John Barnhill, Assistant Vice President for Enrollment Management at Florida State University. “It’s a matter of doing what we already know how to do.”

One of the panel’s recommendations was for high school counselors to do more to help low-income students find a “good fit” in a college and to encourage them to apply to slightly more colleges than the 3.4 average colleges they apply to, versus the 3.9 average colleges applied to by higher income students.

“Applying to one school and increasing that to two increases students’ chances of enrolling in college by 40 percent,” said panelist Chat Leonard, Director of College Counseling at Metro Academic & Classical High School in St. Louis, Mo., citing the survey data.          

“Increasing that number from two to three increases chances of that student enrolling into college by 10 percent,” Leonard said. “So the likelihood of applying to one college versus three, the one who does three has a likelihood of 50 percent more that they will enroll in college.”

Panelists also recommended that post-secondary institutions do more to engage low-income families in person as opposed to relying only on paper and the Internet—that is, being both “high tech and high touch,” instead of just high tech.

While the panel discussion focused largely on the need for outreach, personal interaction and other things that guidance and admissions counselors can do to reach out to more low-income students, the discussion occasionally turned toward the need for more broad-based school reforms and solutions.

Leonard, the college counseling director, spoke of the benefits of having college prep high schools become the standard in order to facilitate better preparedness among low-income students.

“If every high school would adopt college prep as the default, this would not be an issue,” Leonard said. “Research shows that students who take four years of math, English and social studies are most prepared.”

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