Autumn scene at Ohio State University in 2008. (Jo McCulty/Ohio State University)

Vern Granger (Ohio State University)

Two college officials look at a vexing problem: the declining percentage of low-income students going straight from high school to college. Vern Granger, a first-generation college student, now the associate vice president of enrollment services at Ohio State University, and Courtney McAnuff, vice president of enrollment management at Rutgers University, write about what they think should be done to change that. — Susan Svrluga 

Courtney McAnuff (Rutgers University)

By Vern Granger and Courtney McAnuff

Too many disadvantaged students are still missing out on college.

Since 2008, despite a steady expansion of private and public financial aid programs, the percentage of low-income students who enroll in college immediately after high school has fallen significantly, from 56 percent to 46 percent.

A big reason? As we have both witnessed firsthand, today’s college admissions process too often puts low-income, first-generation and otherwise underprivileged students at a serious disadvantage.

Evolving the admissions process to be more sensitive to the challenges faced by these students will help ensure that more smart and ambitious young people can get the education they deserve.

Consider financial aid: Many low-income students believe that a quality college education is unaffordable simply because they are unacquainted with their options.

Indeed, every year, some 2 million students who qualify for Pell Grants — the massive federal financial aid program — do not even apply.

Similarly, many do not know that lots of colleges and universities offer substantial financial help.

On average, in-state tuition and fees for a public university total about $9,400 annually. Many public schools bring that sticker price down much lower through grants, scholarships, work-study opportunities, and other financial aid programs. Some public universities, such as the University of Virginia and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, meet full financial need, meaning qualified students can attend for free.

Higher education officials need to be more active in spreading the word about such programs.

Such information can encourage matriculation. One study of 8,000 low-income students found that providing applicants with better information about the true cost of college, offering regular reminders of key deadlines, and waiving application fees significantly boosted submissions and led to higher rates of enrollment.

Fortunately, some groups are already working hard to provide disadvantaged students with the support they need to attend college.

Programs at our universities, Ohio State and Rutgers, work with underserved, academically talented students as early as the seventh grade to advance their goals of pursuing higher education.

In Ohio, the nonprofit “I Know I Can” partners with Columbus city schools, the largest urban K-12 public district in Ohio, to assist disadvantaged students. The group places a college adviser in each of the districts’ 20 high schools to guide students toward their career aspirations, and to help them submit college and financial aid applications on time.

Old Queens administration building at Rutgers University in New Jersey. (Rutgers)

At Rutgers University, the Rutgers Future Scholars Program helps middle-school students — especially in urban areas — begin the path to college. Students join programs for academic preparation, mentoring, and even take college-level courses. More than 80 percent of the program’s alumni attend higher education institutions. About half have enrolled at Rutgers, which pays for their full tuition.

Likewise, the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success will soon offer low-income students admissions counseling, in addition to extensive application fee waivers. Our schools, along with about 90 other institutions, are members of this coalition.

This work has never been more urgent. In a global economy that increasingly rewards sophisticated cognitive skills, a college education is now the essential ingredient to professional success. The average college graduate in this country can expect to make $800,000 more over a lifetime compared to a peer with only a high-school diploma — a disparity that is certain to grow.

School officials must help fix the admissions system so that disadvantaged students are better served. Closing this information gap is a great step to ensure that all bright and motivated young people have a real shot at an affordable and empowering college education.