NEW YORK — In spite of being among the top students in his school, Joseph Nelzy was quick to give up on being admitted to one of the nation’s best colleges after he got a rejection letter from Brandeis University, near Boston.
“I had no hope after that,” Nelzy, 18, said in the college advising office at Abraham Lincoln High School, a huge Depression-era building in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach section, where more than half of its students live at or below the poverty line.
But as Nelzy brooded over the rejection, hope arrived the next day in the form of an email — an acceptance to Cornell University’s Class of 2018, which was later followed by an offer of a full scholarship.
“It was just the best feeling I ever felt,” recounted Nelzy, who has a 3.8 grade point average and is 15th in his graduating class of 537 students.
He had his sights set on college ever since he, his mother and stepfather fled political instability and violence in their native Haiti in 2008.
Stories like Nelzy’s are unfolding for a few dozen seniors at Lincoln chosen to participate in an experimental program called College Match, which tries to encourage and counsel low-income, high-achieving students to apply to selective colleges that match their academic qualifications.
Research shows that most top students from low-income backgrounds don’t aim so high. In a phenomenon called under-matching, the “vast majority” of the 25,000 to 35,000 highest scorers on the SAT and ACT who come from low-income families don’t apply to selective universities and colleges for which they’re not only qualified, but can likely get generous financial aid, according to research from Harvard and Stanford universities.
Instead they go to poorly chosen colleges and universities with low graduation rates, or forgo a higher education altogether, largely because of a lack of encouragement and information, researchers found. One outcome of that is less diversity among America’s future leaders.