In the college admissions world, debate has sprung up about the best way to recruit students from low-income families. The Common Application, used by more than 600 schools, is a major player in the field. But a new coalition of prestigious schools is forming an alternative application, to debut next summer. They call themselves the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success. In October The Post published a viewpoint from DePaul University admissions chief Jon Boeckenstedt, a skeptic of the coalition. Here is a reply from the leader of a nonprofit organization in Dallas who supports the coalition.
By Sara Urquidez
Even for the most academically gifted students from low-income families, applying for college can be an arduous process of self-education and overcoming common myths about affordability.
My nonprofit college access program works with such students and their families every day in the poorest areas of Dallas, helping them decode the college application process. It’s hard to convey the feeling of victory and hope when our students earn admission to some of the nation’s most selective colleges, including Harvard, Yale, and Stanford.
That’s why I was confused recently by the firestorm when a group of more than 80 colleges launched the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success. The coalitions seeks to provide an online platform specifically geared to low-income students, with tools to help streamline the process of applying to college and bridge the gap of college affordability.
Much of the criticism has come from counselors from wealthy private schools complained about the burden this would place on them with over-involved and zealous parents. Non-coalition colleges complained about a fractured application process, the selectivity rates of coalition colleges, and tried to poke holes in the affordability component. My primary thought was that the complainers do not really understand the work I am immersed in every day.
For low-income students, college affordability is the first question when evaluating college options. For many middle class families, this number comes down to a range of how much they want to pay. For the vast majority of the students I work with, this number is an absolute. When a family income is $7,000 or even $21,000, there is an absolute threshold. Nearly 90 percent of my 16,000 students are from a low socio-economic status. Every year I see students accepted to a myriad of colleges – only to find out that none is affordable.
With the current state of college counseling in the public high schools that serve the greatest number of low-income students, myths about college affordability abound. Last year, one of our students was accepted early to Harvard. Instead of celebrating, administrators said, “How sad. How will his family ever pay for such a school?” What these educators didn’t know was that Harvard would be essentially free and would not require the student to take out loans. Many other outstanding colleges and universities are actually less expensive to attend than the schools that low-income students think they must choose.
The importance of early knowledge of college affordability cannot be underestimated for low-income students, many of whom do not have college-educated parents or access to quality college advising. For these students, starting the conversation in senior year is far too late.
I work in schools where students don’t know the difference between the SAT and ACT. Our students are rarely, if ever, asked to write substantial essays and many do not have access to computers or Internet when they leave campus. There are no influential alumni writing on their behalf, and teacher recommendations are, at best, form letters and, at worst, never submitted. The idea our students could successfully complete the entire college application process independently and remain competitive within today’s applicant pools is ludicrous. Organizations such as mine exist to bridge this knowledge gap, but we cannot do it alone.
The playing field isn’t equal, but that doesn’t mean that we should give up on the idea that it could be. What if we had a road map or central location where students could access information on how to be on the pathway toward college? The parade of horrors being touted by the counselors in wealthier schools is a gross overreaction to an opportunity to provide more information to students who desperately need it. The tools provided by the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success are things that more resourced schools already provide through numerous private companies (Naviance, College Planner Pro, etc.). The Coalition recognizes that there is a true knowledge gap for low-income students. There is a lack of understanding of which colleges are truly affordable and how to be a competitive applicant for those schools.
Early awareness for these students can only be a good thing.
The Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success has been widely criticized for not being a perfect solution. The absence of a perfect solution doesn’t mean that we should stop trying to tackle the problem. The Coalition Application doesn’t mean that we will abandon our work in Dallas Independent School District and point students to this single online resource as a one-stop shop for college advising. It does, however, mean that our students may arrive at senior year with a better understanding of what questions they should be asking about affordability and selectivity. And maybe – just maybe – they’ll arrive with a few more things to put on their resume because we won’t be asking them to recall the past four years from the top of their head when the parents of their counterparts across town have been keeping resumes for their children since the sixth grade.
Sara Urquidez is executive director of the Academic Success Program Dallas, a nonprofit college access program serving 15 Dallas Independent School District high schools and more than 16,000 students this year.