May 3, 2013

Nina W. Marks is founder and Rachel Y. Mazyck is president of Collegiate Directions Inc.

Each April, the tables are turned in admissions offices of selective U.S. colleges as their role shifts from the pursued to the pursuer. Prestigious colleges nationwide compete for high-achieving high school seniors with multiple college offers who must confirm a choice by May 1.

Unfortunately, few low-income students are in that lucky group. A National Bureau of Economic Research working paper estimates that there are 25,000 to 35,000 exceptionally promising low-income students — a far greater number than previously believed — with an A-minus or better high school GPA and scoring at the 90th percentile or above on the SAT or ACT.

Yet only 8 percent of this group has even applied this year to the selective colleges that would challenge them academically. So the vast majority of the exceptional students in this study by Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery are falling through the cracks.

Surprising as these findings are, we believe the number of low-income students who could attend and thrive in selective colleges is even greater than Hoxby and Avery predicted. That’s because the 12th-graders they’ve identified are ones for whom the cake is already baked.

At Collegiate Directions Inc. in Bethesda, we work with low-income, first-generation-to-college 11th-graders to support them to and through college. Only a few of our scholars each year fall into the “high-achieving” category that Hoxby and Avery describe; most have a B average and SAT or ACT scores at the 50th percentile. Their average family income is $36,000 a year, and for many English is a second language.

However, we start work early enough to make investments in college readiness that transform our scholars’ chances of success. We provide hands-on support until they graduate from college. How much of a difference does this make? Since we began in 2005, 98 percent of our scholars have graduated from four-year colleges within six years, compared with only 11 percent of low-income, first-generation students nationally, according to a 2008 Pell study.

Our scholars exemplify how earlier intervention, personal advising and academic support are essential to finding, gaining admittance to and succeeding in a best-fit college.

Kevin Rivas, who was not a native English speaker, came to us with a B-minus average and SAT scores in the 60th percentile — far from the high-achieving pool but with a strong recommendation from a school representative who realized that difficult circumstances were hindering Kevin’s academic performance. Disheartened, Kevin had decided that his only option was to enlist in the Navy. With weekly tutoring, advice on curriculum, help in creating a college list and confirming a best-fit choice, as well as our support during his college years, Kevin overcame academic and financial obstacles. He majored in business at Juniata College, a supportive, rigorous institution. After graduation, he took a full-time position at an aerospace and technology services contractor in McLean.

Why don’t more students like Kevin — those with high potential but less stellar profiles than those Hoxby and Avery highlighted — attend and graduate from appropriately challenging colleges?

There is a host of reasons. Foremost is the lack of early identification and ongoing support. High-potential, low-income students’ chances of success increase when they receive advising on curriculum before their senior year. The good news is that virtually every high school already has data that would foster earlier identification, although few use the information effectively.

Any school that administers a 10th-grade PSAT can access excellent College Board “Research Notes” detailing how to use those scores to identify promising but not yet stellar students early in their high school careers. Students with good scores — especially in reading — should be encouraged to take challenging Advanced Placement courses as 11th- and 12th-graders.

Taking rigorous classes is only one of many ways to help low-income students prepare for, gain admittance to and graduate from challenging, selective colleges. These students also need mentoring and tailored advising to build personal and social skills, other key components in college readiness and success.

We must address this opportunity gap. Only 3 percent of students at the 146 top universities across the country are from families in the lowest economic quartile; conversely, 74 percent of students attending these top universities are from the highest income quartile. Everyone loses when academically prepared, low-income students don’t even consider attending top colleges. Students forfeit a chance to develop their full academic and personal potential; colleges bypass promising and deserving candidates; and the nation perpetuates educational, social and economic inequities.