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Bridging the Gap Between Talented, Low Income Students and Great Schools in the College Admissions Process

by Carol Barash, PhD, on Mar 18, 2013 4:52:00 PM

The top schools in the country assert that they are actively recruiting low-income students, but a recent article from the NYTimes suggests that the effort is failing and low-income students are not applying to top colleges and universities. The story, "Better Colleges Failing to Lure Talented Poor,” holds the institutions responsible for lackluster recruiting efforts. But undermatching is a symptom of a much larger problem, and one that colleges alone cannot solve: low-income students just don't have the information and resources they need to fully grasp the opportunities available to them. Students often don't realize that high power schools have need-blind admissions policies and offer loan-free financial aid packages.

The NY Times article uses the example of Bowdoin College: how many low-income students in Bridgeport, CT know about Bowdoin in Maine? According to the US News report, Bowdoin is ranked sixth on the list of National Liberal Arts colleges, but Bowdoin is hardly a household name and its $45,000 a year price tag will discourage most low-income families. But many students don't realize that selective schools like Bowdoin promise to meet all demonstrated need, meaning that the school will use your FAFSA to determine how much you can pay and offer the difference as a financial aid package. Bowdoin is also one of about thirty selective colleges that do not include loans in financial aid. Instead of Federal student loans, these schools (which also include Ivies like Yale, Princeton, and Harvard) will give students a package that includes scholarships, grants, and work-study. This is aid that students do not need to pay back.

But what use is this money to students who don't know about it? Certainly colleges and universities can do a better job of informing students of their policies, but the students need the resources to meet the schools half way. Guidance counselors, particularly those in rural areas that won't receive aggressive recruiting from colleges, should make sure their low-income students know about the aid that's available.  And they should be encouraging talented students to apply to schools that will meet their demonstrated need.

The reality, however, is that students can't rely on their guidance counselor to give them all this information and can't wait around for colleges to recruit them. They need the skills and the resources to advocate for themselves in the admissions process. There needs to be a group of educators and experts who are willing to step up and give these students the navigational tools they need for the college admissions process. If the community of educational companies and non-profits committed to educational access pool our resources, imagine what we can construct to bridge the gap between high-powered schools and low-income students. A few non-profits, including The Opportunity Network and I'm First, are doing great work already, but the task is gargantuan and requires a coordinated team effort. 

For more information on which schools have excluded loans from their financial aid packages, check out

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