General Education

Opening College Access to Talented Low-Income Students

Opening College Access to Talented Low-Income Students
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Molly Pennington, PhD profile
Molly Pennington, PhD April 28, 2015

Today, it is widely accepted that a college education is vital for careers that are both satisfying and economically sustaining. But how do high-achieving, low-income students learn about their college options when their schools and communities lack the resources available to their higher-income peers?

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Income is a powerful determining factor in who attends college — and who does not.

A child whose family income is in the top quarter of earners in the U.S. has an 85 percent chance of going to college. But for a student in the bottom quarter of the nation’s income ranges, that chance drops to just eight percent.

And yet, according to research cited recently by New York University President John Sexton “ … recent studies indicate that nearly one-fifth of all U.S. high-school seniors who score in the top 10th percentile of standardized tests come from that bottom quartile.” Researchers and university administrators are trying to understand — and address — the factors that lead to this gap between achievement and college matriculation.
A child from a low-income family who attains a college education nearly quadruples her chances of entering a high-income wage bracket. A college education is a vital means of narrowing the wage disparities we see today.

Myth and Reality

You might think that getting into college is an easy prospect for academically talented, low-income high school students. You might imagine that they are heavily recruited by colleges and receive guidance from teachers and counselors at their high schools. Research shows, however, that many of these high-achievers aren’t steered toward college, especially if they’re from poor households in rural districts. There are several factors that contribute to this problem:

# Lack of Information

College recruiters typically scout low-income, high-achievers in major metropolitan areas, while similar students in less populated areas are often overlooked. Kids from more rural communities are usually on their own when it comes to searching for colleges. Research by Caroline Hoxby of Stanford University and Christopher Avery of Harvard University shows that when they do go to college, they often choose a community college or a four-year college close to home. And while it’s likely that they could get into a much more competitive school better suited to their needs, most students in this demographic do not even apply to a selective school. In the meantime, middle- to high-income kids who have comparable academic achievements end up at much better institutions.

# Lack of Resources

Low-income students often have secondary considerations that are simply not factors for kids who come from higher-income families. For example, they may feel constrained by travel costs, since plane tickets home during breaks are an expense that scholarships don’t cover. Additional costs, such as books, college fees, or a modest amount of spending money, are expenses that low-income students can’t assume that they will be able to afford.

Often, low-income students do not even <a href=” because of the application fee at each college or the cost of additional standardized test score reports. Frustratingly, they may not have accurate information about SAT or <a href=”{: target=”_blank” rel=”nofollow” } fee waivers or standardized test discounts, such as those offered for [AP Exams](” target=”_blank” rel=”nofollow”>ACT. Most importantly, these kids [often believe](” target=”_blank”>apply to multiple schools that selective colleges are out of their price range — even though, with financial aid packages, this is likely not to be the case.

_Related: Where to Find College Application Fee Waivers_

# Lack of Guidance

The uphill battle faced by low-income high-achievers often extends far beyond their own intentions or hopes, too. Their parents may not have experience with colleges, application processes, or the scholarships and resources that are available to help low-income families navigate the college admissions process. Many of these students — and their parents — don’t believe they have a shot at admission to a top college — even when their chances are better than those of some middle or high-income students.

These high-achievers often get some advice from a teacher or their school guidance office, but research suggests that the assistance they receive is usually limited. High school guidance counselors may each be responsible for up to 1,000 students if they work in a predominantly low-income district, and they often don’t have the time to devote to individual students.

_Related: How Your High School Should Help Prepare You for College_

# Lack of Connections

Since many low-income high-achievers do not receive adequate guidance or encouragement to reach out to selective schools, colleges and universities are often not even aware that these impressive candidates exist. This lack of mutual awareness compounds the access problems that students face. Some recent programs, like the Expanding College Opportunities (ECO) Comprehensive Intervention, try to address various blocking points in the admissions process by providing resources (e.g., information on fee waivers) to students and their families.

Four Notable Programs

These organizations work with high-achieving, low-income students to help them navigate the college application and financial aid processes and to provide support through to graduation and beyond:

# QuestBridge

QuestBridge seeks to bridge the gap between low-income high-achievers and the multiple scholarships and opportunities that are available — but that can be difficult to access. The organization focuses on recruitment efforts to find those high-achievers who score exceptionally well on standardized tests, but it also seeks out students who don’t have the opportunity to take these tests. QuestBridge seeks out talented, low-income students and nurtures them on their journey from high school through college to job placement.

# Minds Matter

Minds Matter has several chapters in major cities across the nation. The organization is committed to transforming the lives of low-income high-achievers by preparing them for college success. The organization works with participants in their sophomore, junior, and senior years of high school to strengthen their academic skills, provide test prep, and support them through the college and financial aid application processes. It has also set several long-term goals, including getting at least 90 percent of its students to earn bachelor’s degrees, raising funds to endow a scholarship, and broadening its alumni network.

# Jack Kent Cooke Foundation

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation has multiple scholarship programs for exceptional students with financial need. While the foundation also offers scholarships to younger students, its undergraduate program is specifically targeted toward academically talented kids who plan to attend the nation’s best universities.

# Bloomberg Philanthropies

Bloomberg Philanthropies seeks to break down barriers for high-achieving students from low-income households. It is spearheading an initiative that involves research, widespread advising, and online resources to help these kids learn about the college and financial aid application processes. The organization’s goal is to help low-income high-achievers enroll in the nation’s top schools.

_You can use Noodle’s advice community to ask experts confidential questions about the college admissions process and find counselor-written articles. There is also a free college search feature that allows you to filter schools by real cost and view typical financial aid packages of specific colleges._


Bunker, N. (2015, March 11). How to Get High-Achieving, Low-Income Students into Selective Schools. Retrieved April 16, 2015, from Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

Hoxby, C., & Turner, S. (n.d.). Expanding College Opportunities for High-Achieving, Low Income Students. Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, 1–55. Retrieved April 15, 2015, from Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.

Hoxby, C., & Avery, C. (2013). The Missing “One-Offs”: The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low-Income Students. Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Spring(2013), 1–66. Retrieved April 15, 2015, from Brookings Papers on Economic Activity.

Increasing College Opportunity for Low-Income Students: Promising Models and a Call to Action. (2014, January 1). Retrieved April 15, 2015, from the White House.

Meraji, S. (2015, March 15). Why Many Smart, Low-Income Students Don’t Apply To Elite Schools. Retrieved April 15, 2015, from NPR.


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