Impacts of Lower Socioeconomic Status on College Admissions
January 24, 2018
The underrepresentation of low-income students at selective institutions of higher learning may point to strong disadvantages in the college admissions process that are unique to this demographic. A combination of a lack of access to resources to solidify prerequisites for acceptance, strong barriers to apply, and unfavorable admissions review procedures, make it significantly harder for low-income students to make it through the admissions process at top universities. While elite schools with large endowments and federal grants generally do well at providing financial support to low-income students, there seems to be limited awareness of these resources. Policies to recruit and accept low-income students appear to mitigate these issues on the institutional level, while government funding towards programs such as Pell Grants increase educational accessibility from the national level.
Between campaign promises of tuition-free college from Bernie Sanders, the “Turning the Tide” report published by Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and its subsequent endorsements by the admissions offices of many of the nation’s top elite schools, the topic of making college affordable and accessible to low-income students is becoming more of a public issue and priority. A remaining question, however, is how accessible elite universities actually are for students in poverty and which admissions policies hurt or help low-income applicants. This article will explore whether low-income students are at a disadvantage prior to and during the college application process and the potential for policy solutions.
Prerequisites to the Application Process
Recent high school graduates now studying at elite universities will recall the long process of building their applications and resumes over time. A majority of this comes well before students go to fill out their Common Application and students without a head start often fall behind. While colleges look at extracurriculars and standardized tests back to students’ freshman year, not all applicants are aware of this scope.
Firstly, a student’s ability to perform well on standardized tests prior to applying to colleges has been linked with socioeconomic factors. A study conducted by Saul Geiser at the University of California, Berkeley, on SAT and ACT performance suggests factors outside of students’ control, including family income, parental education, and race/ethnicity, account for 33% of the variance in scores between test takers, putting students of low socioeconomic status at a huge disadvantage in this area. In short, where any given student’s score stands compared to their peers can be largely accounted for by socioeconomic barriers, factors that need to be remedied for during the admissions process.
In addition, compared to students coming from households with higher family income, low-income students are less likely to participate in extracurricular activities, creating an activity gap. Due to “the rising costs of sport teams and school clubs” along with “parents’ uncertain work schedules and precarious household budgets”,  75% of middle and upper-class seniors participated in at least one extracurricular, as opposed to 56% of low-income students, with strong evidence for a downward trend in participation in low-income brackets over the last few decades. Because top universities increasingly prefer the applications of candidates with impressive resumes demonstrating achievement and involvement outside the classroom, low-income students without a suite of extracurriculars on their applications are becoming less competitive.
Low-income students face two significant obstacles on the path towards admission: barriers to apply and disadvantages in the admissions review. There are a variety of reasons why low-income students may not even apply to elite schools, even if they could get in. One, as identified by Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby, is location. Students who live outside of large metropolitan centers are often ignored by college recruiters and do not get the proper information about selective schools. This leads to widespread “under-matching” for many low-income rural students, in which they end up at local or community colleges that are lower in academic rigor than universities of higher standing in which the students’ achievement levels would be matched.
Another reason for not applying is poor counseling. Hoxby says counselors “may not have gone to selective colleges themselves,” adding that, “…they’re really busy, and the students who require the most attention aren’t usually the good kids with good grades.” Without access to quality counseling in schools, where there is often a 400 student-to-counselor ratio, many high achieving students miss out on the opportunity to gain insight on the process from their counselor and take advantage of resources the counselor may have at their disposal.
Another crucial reason many low-income students don’t apply is a conception that selective schools are “out of their league”, both academically and financially. What Hoxby, however, notes is that selective schools are actually “cheaper for low-income high achievers than colleges that have fewer resources,” though most low-income families are unaware of this due to the advertised cost of attendance and historical perceptions of elite institutions. Perceived and real costs, in addition to the lack of knowledge of financial assistance, in standardized testing, application fees, tuition, cost of living, and transportation discourage low-income students from applying to a variety of schools, particularly “reach” schools that may advertise higher sticker prices.
While barriers to admissions often deter low-income students from applying to institutions of higher learning, the ones who do might still be at a disadvantage due to admissions processes within universities. For one, the “holistic review” approach many schools employ takes weight away from test scores and GPAs, which may hurt low-income students who lack diverse extracurriculars due to the aforementioned “activity gap”. To be sure, there is indeed an income-correlation with standardized testing as well, but it’s far cheaper in terms of study resources to prepare for the SAT than it is to fund an expensive and involved extracurricular career. Furthermore, admissions policies common at elite universities include a consideration of legacy status and family donations for acceptance; low-income students rarely enjoy these benefits.
Policy Solutions and Suggestions
Many different initiatives have been created with the aim of reducing the university admissions gap, such as the Coalition Application, designed by the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success. This collaborative of several dozen top tier universities sought to create an alternate application that reflected what they believe were the most important aspects of a candidate’s portfolio, and this is now being accepted for the 2017-2018 application season at many major elite institutions. The Coalition Application aims to restructure the way applications are structured and ultimately judged, to be more inclusive of a variety of factors that are currently less emphasized, like the relative availability of educational resources for students of varying socioeconomic status. However, from a governmental standpoint, research points to two policy changes that should be made in concert to increase the number of low income students at selective schools: targeting and increasing the amount of information on federal and institutional financial support towards low-income students, and increasing the number of Pell Grant recipients at universities through federal funding and admissions policies at universities.
Tailored and targeted information on financial assistance would help because one of the primary barriers to apply lies within students’ and their families’ misconceptions about affordability. Caroline Hoxby points to the fact that just providing an “informational tool-kit” with information about programs and respective adjusted costs of attendance made students 53 percent more likely to apply, 78 percent more likely to get admitted, and 50 percent more likely to enroll in a selective institution. The government spends $1 billion annually on different initiatives to increase the number of disadvantaged student enrolled in colleges, but those initiatives, according to a Brookings Institute and Princeton University study, have “no major effects on college enrollment or completion.” By reevaluating these programs for effectiveness and channeling more resources towards disseminating targeted facts about both public and private universities will likely help to bridge the gap.
Finally, public and private schools can adopt policies that would aim, to admit low-income students such that Pell Grant recipients make up at least 20% of undergraduate student populations. 20% is about half of the proportion of all undergraduate students receiving Pell Grant aid, and many universities could admit the necessary number of students to reach 20% without compromising significant financial resources or test score averages. The impacts of reaching such a goal at the university level cannot be understated. As a study published by Dr. Jeffery Denning in the National Bureau of Economic Research shows, Pell Grant aid not only significantly increases the likelihood of low-income students obtaining a degree, but the costs are also fully recouped through the increase in taxed income of recipients in the years following graduation. Consequently, despite the Trump Administration’s proposal to cut funding to federal student financial aid, funding and eligibility for Pell Grants ought to be increased to bridge the gaps to educational access and increase societal welfare without incurring significant economic costs.  However, policymakers should leave discretion of proportions to admit to institutions themselves rather than passing mandates, as increasing the number of Pell Grant recipients may have impacts on the number of minority and international students that can be admitted, potentially decreasing cultural and ethnic diversity on campuses.
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The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.