The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

June 27, 2013

Looking for ways to make good colleges available to smart but poor kids

NEW YORK — Thick white envelopes are landing in the mailboxes of thousands of high school juniors nationwide this summer, with hip graphics in greens and blues and colorful photos of happy-looking people just like them.

In simple but carefully chosen language, the mailings try to persuade these students of something that research shows they don’t necessarily believe: that they can get into, and afford to go to, college. The contents include a very specific list of fairly selective colleges — customized especially for them — with vouchers they can use to apply to eight schools for free.

It’s not a marketing gimmick. It’s one of several earnest attempts by reputable backers to plug a massive leak through which many smart but poor high school graduates are cascading at the very time policymakers are trying to increase the proportion of the population with university degrees.

Using sophisticated combinations of test scores, census data about neighborhood characteristics and university admissions histories, these initiatives are zeroing in on students who are low income but high achieving, yet end up at poorly chosen colleges and universities with abysmal graduation rates — or forgo a higher education altogether. The effort hopes to steer them into institutions where their backgrounds suggest they are most likely to succeed.

Little noticed, and often concentrated in urban and rural schools with poor college-going rates and scant college counseling, “low-income students — even if they are high achieving — simply don’t apply to college,” said Mike Reilly, executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admission Officers.

Many have parents who didn’t go to college, either, he said. With no experience of the complicated application process, their parents are dubious that they can get their kids into — let alone afford — a high-quality institution.

“You can overcome bad advising or a bad high school environment if you’ve been raised with the expectation that you’re going to go to college,” Reilly said. “But if you’re first generation, you don’t have that college-going expectation as part of your family fabric.”

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