Drawing more low-income students to college

Inside Higher Ed reports on a new consortium to make college more affordable and more accessible for low-income “B+” students who may not now aspire to colleges with higher graduation rates and more competitive admissions.

And as is often the case, the attention is focused on higher status colleges, not the regional state schools were *most* students enroll:

Meanwhile, the identity of the colleges being targeted in the initiative is one major line of criticism. Some argue that to truly help more low- and moderate-income students graduate, you need to pump money into the public colleges and universities they attend — often nonflagship state universities. While the low-income students who are admitted to Harvard thanks to this program will certainly benefit, critics say, the overall problem of access to higher education won’t be addressed, since most low-income students will never be admitted to these institutions.

via Effort launches to boost low-income enrollment at top colleges

Public Colleges, Wealthier Students


Yet more on the lure of higher income students in these times of diminished state funding.

“Because the state contributes a smaller and smaller proportion of UW-Madison’s operating budget, the university administration naturally considers alternative ways of raising revenues, and the many wealthy applicants offer a quick, attractive alternative,” the study authors wrote.

“Poverty Preference” in Admissions

A new report calls for elite institutions to affirmatively recruit and admit high achieving students in poverty, arguing that there is ample evidence that these students will thrive once admitted.

Students from families in the bottom economic quartile comprise only three percent of enrollment in the most competitive schools, while those from the top economic quartile comprise 72 percent.

via True Merit.

Hidden Help and Hiding Out in College

There’s a growing literature on how intensely middle class parents invest in their children’s success, from Annette Lareau’s now classic study  showing the “concerted cultivation” parenting of extensive  involvement in extra curricular activities, driving, advising, and being audience for children’s many performances; to extensive involvement in children’s daily challenges; to ongoing advice  and engagement in students’ college success and then negotiating connections for first jobs.

I mention this research when I’m talking with faculty and staff who so often lament that First Generation college students “won’t ask for help”.  We talk about how students who may have had to be incredibly independent and self-motivated and resourceful to get themselves to college may believe that they now have to prove that they can do it on their own, or may be doubting that they deserve help, or may simply not know that help is available.  Or they may balk at the term “help” that can imply  that they are in trouble.

I talk about this literature in middle class child-rearing to remind colleagues that most college kids whose parents have college degrees have had hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours of hidden “help” before they ever set foot in a college classroom.  In their terrific book Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality,  Elizabeth Armstrong and Linda Hamilton write of one such student who was admitted to a competitive professional graduate program:

Here Taylor’s parents coaching, inside information, and efforts to keep her on track academically paid off.  These benefits however were invisible to those evaluating her, as they were instantiated in her record.  Taylor … simply looked more intelligent, accomplished, and suited for the professional than most applicants.  (p. 200).

So when I read the headline about this new study about the success of  “intensive” college counseling for low-income students, I thought at first that we might be talking about similar levels of support to those now taken for granted by the children of college graduates.

But no. The low-income students in this study –who attend high schools with exceptionally high student-to-counselor ratios — were able to access one hour of counselor time every two weeks.

But this one hour mattered in where students wound up going to college.

When we talk about ways to support First Generation students in going to and succeeding in college, I want to also talk out loud about the genuinely intensive “help” that their middle-class peers have had.  I want to talk out loud about how this help is made invisible.

And I want to talk very specifically about explaining to First Generation students that in going to office hours, lobbying the financial aid staff for information, connecting with the campus counselors, or staying on the radar of academic advisors, they are still accessing a fraction of the “help” that others take for granted.

And that it will matter.

And that in doing so, they’ll continue their trajectory of getting themselves where they want to go, step-by-step,  chipping away at the odds stacked against them from the start.


When More Parental Support is Less

I just finished reading Laura Hamilton’s article More is More or More is Less: Parental Financial Investments During College (published behind academic firewalls in American Sociological Review, Vol, 78, 2012).

Introducing her study, she writes:

Because parental aid increases access to college, students with parental assistance will likely display a wider range of ability and motivation. In contrast, students who make it to college with little to no parental help may not only be exceptionally talented but also uniquely motivated — for which there is no good empirical proxy.

She found, indeed, that students receiving more money from their parents while in college are more likely finish their degree but also more likely to have lower GPAs than other students.

I think that this is such a smart study because:

  1. It questions the long-standing assumption that generous parenting is inherently good for students.
  2. It concedes that upper-middle class ways of being are not the model for all other students.  Working, for example, may actually contribute to students’ investment in higher ed.
  3. It puts all  the fuss about things like SAT exams into context.  The SAT is a low predictor of eventual success in college for many populations, yet many colleges continue to require entrance exams.  If the amount of financial support that students get will get from parents does predict eventual GPA, might admissions preferences not then be given to those students who will *not* be supported as generously by parents, if the goal of admissions is to admit those most likely to succeed?

Researchers invest a great deal of time studying those on the margins of formal schooling.    It is good to also see studies looking more closely at those considered to be the norm.




There are so many disturbing things in this piece in today’s Inside Higher Education about data systems that allow college recruiters to “micro target” students.

First is the  focus on recruiting students who don’t need financial aid:

“Everybody wants to go to the magic island of full-pay students, but it’s rapidly shrinking real estate,” said Bill Berg, an enrollment management consultant at Scannell & Kurz.

Some consulting firms are promising to help colleges try to get paying students, or students who have other means that don’t require colleges to discount their tuition prices. RightStudent gathers and sells data on students to help colleges find specific types of students, including students with families wealthy enough to pay for college and students who can receive outside scholarships for other characteristics, including specific learning disabilities.

Then there are the insinuations that colleges may use zip code as proxies for income and race in deciding who will or won’t be recruited, and the resistance to establishing policies for policing such practices.
Then there is the news that 4 year colleges may spend up to $2500 to recruit each enrollee, when I’m clear that no one is spending anything close to that to recruit students from places like my high school.

And finally there is the implication that colleges may also use these data sets to actively recruit applicants that they know will never be admitted, all so that they can boast of their selectivity.

Families of poor and working kids already face so many challenges when navigating the path to college, and now they have to be savvy about why they are or are not getting recruiting contacts from colleges.  I’m imagining the confused pride around being recruited by a college that seems beyond one’s reach, but beginning to imagine what it might be like to be someone who does belong in such a place, only to get a letter months later denying  my application, with little or no explanation, all so that that college can boost its selectivity rankings.

All this, when we continue to spout rhetoric about higher ed being about the shining  path to opportunity and mobility.

Reproducing Privilege

While more African American and Hispanic young people are attending college, their enrollment takes them on very different paths from more privileged white peers, according to this new report from researchers at Georgetown.


Center on Education and the Workforce --1












When I started thinking about college as a working class white girl in a small town, I was on my own.

My parents were proud, my high school guidance counselors smiled and wrote me the required recommendation letters, but I was completely on my own in deciding where to apply.   It really wasn’t until graduate school that I began to realize the vast differences in different colleges and universities.   At 16, I knew only that it was a good thing to aspire to “college”.

Earlier reports have shown that high achieving, low-income kids have little access to information about whether they might be competitive for admissions to more elite colleges or whether they could afford to go there.  At the same time, for-profict colleges that are now attracting so many kids of color and low-income kids have huge budgets for recruiting and advertising.

In this information age, when young people now carry digital connections to the world in their pockets, the ball would seem to be in the court of colleges and universities to disseminate the most basic information to young people about where they might thrive, and where they’d be welcomed.

If, in fact, they would be welcomed.