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Not So Open Doors

Elite colleges need to change policies to recruit, admit and graduate talented low-income students, report says. It calls out some by name.

August 18, 2017
 

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and its leaders, with some regularity, draw attention to a disconcerting reality of American higher education: many academically talented low-income college students who could succeed at the most elite American colleges and universities don't apply and don't know about the availability of aid that would make enrolling possible. The foundation criticizes the way many colleges recruit (with insufficient attention to those in low-income neighborhoods) and policies such as the use of binding early decision. Because applicants who apply under binding early decision programs must commit to enroll if admitted, many low-income students feel excluded, as they need to compare multiple aid offers to decide where to enroll.

A report issued Thursday -- "Opening Doors: How Selective Colleges and Universities Are Expanding Access for High-Achieving, Low-Income Students" -- praises some colleges for doing more to recruit these students, and suggests that there is much more to be done. The report recommends eliminating early decision, ending admissions preferences for athletes and alumni children, and limiting the use of standardized admissions tests.

But the report also gets a bit more granular and calls out colleges by name for some of their admissions and aid policies -- for the way they describe fee-waiver rules, how they introduce tools to let potential students figure out aid eligibility, and for the practice of many top institutions of blocking the use of a tool that the foundation says could help many prospective students and families.

The foundation starts off with evidence of why there is a problem in admissions -- based on a survey of the kind of high school students most colleges say they very much want to recruit: those from low-income families who have a grade point average of 3.8 and SAT or ACT scores in the top 15th percentile nationally.

The survey results show that concerns about college costs discourage one in three high-achieving low-income students from applying to any college. Further, 44 percent of these students never visit their top-choice college and 23 percent apply with no help from parents, teachers or counselors. These types of statistics point to all kinds of lost opportunities, the report says, and other research backs up. For instance, not visiting a top college means that these potential students don't know their opportunities there, but also -- as a recent study illustrated -- that their chances of admission may be diminished.

Fee Waivers, Beyond Just Offering Them

Most colleges and universities charge application fees ($65 is common, and some fees are higher). While the fees may seem small in the context of the total price of attending a private college, many low-income students report that they don't have the money. Colleges that have dropped application fees or made waivers automatic for many applicants have reported significant gains in the number of low-income students who apply, and who enroll.

Almost all colleges participate in programs that allow applicants to seek a waiver for application fees. But the foundation's survey suggests that this isn't working as well as it could.

Thirty-five percent of those in the group of low-income students never applied for a fee waiver, with most of them saying that they didn't know they would qualify. The report recommends that colleges do a better job of publicizing the availability of waivers and make waivers simple and easy to get. And to drive home its point, the report cites language on some college websites that it says illustrates the problem, not the solution.

For example, here is the policy the foundation found at the University of Miami: "The University of Miami accepts fee waivers from the College Board, NACAC or ACT. UM does not grant fee waivers for applicants. University of Miami employees or dependents of employees may apply using the option 'School-specific fee waiver.' If you have questions about receiving a fee waiver, you should speak to your guidance counselor."

The foundation's analysis: "The University of Miami does not grant fee waivers across the board. It appears that each waiver must be sought separately. This is especially burdensome."

The university issued this statement: "The University of Miami grants application fee waivers for all students who demonstrate financial hardship. Students can work with their high school counselor to obtain a fee waiver from College Board, NACAC, or ACT. One of the University's roadmap initiatives is to meet 100 percent of students' demonstrated financial need by our centennial in 2025, so it is evident that socioeconomic diversity in the student body is a priority."

Net Price Calculators

The report reviews net price calculators -- which in theory let a potential applicant know roughly how much aid they should receive -- at many college websites. Reviewing the calculators of Yale University and Wellesley College, the report finds the latter much more friendly to low-income students. (The Yale site is here and Wellesley's is here.)

The foundation's critique: "Observe that the first example from Yale makes certain assumptions about students that may not be true for those from low-income families: that students have access to their parent’s tax returns; that families have savings, checking, investment and retirement accounts; that family assets may exceed $200,000. Contrast these assumptions with the simpler, more welcoming language of Wellesley’s."

Yale did not respond to a request for comment.

The report also strongly endorses use of the Pell Abacus, a tool that allows low-income students, without much detail about their family finances, to get a sense of aid eligibility at various colleges. The simplicity of the tool, and its ability to allow for comparisons, makes it ideal for many students, the report says.

But 31 elite colleges, the report says, block use of the tool (which requires some connection to a college's website). The New York Times reported last year on the trend of blocking Pell Abacus, and also noted that few colleges doing so provide detailed information on their rationales.

Many of these colleges still aren't anxious to provide detail.

A spokesman for Princeton University said via email, "Princeton has its own financial aid calculator, which is available to the public and is more accurate in presenting cost and aid calculations for prospective students. Therefore, we do not see the need for an external tool."

One institution among the 31 is considering a possible change. A spokesman for Bowdoin College said via email, "The topic of whether to provide access to [Pell] Abacus is on the table and we are certainly willing to consider it. Our goal here is transparency. We want to encourage families to use our [net-price calculator] and to contact us directly if they have questions or concerns about the results. As you know, Bowdoin is need-blind. We meet 100 percent of a student’s demonstrated need for all four years with grant aid and a small work award (no loans), and we’ll talk with anyone about their situation, but we also want to be careful to protect their data. If we open the door to [Pell] Abacus -- which says it does not sell data -- what prevents another less scrupulous company from offering another tool that is not as safe? So, we’ll talk about this, and I would be happy to let you know if we make a change."

Jennifer Glynn, director of research and evaluation at the foundation and author of the report, acknowledged in an interview that calling out colleges was a new approach for the organization. She noted that much of the report is a positive look at policies working at various colleges.

"I think the focus is on what colleges should be doing and highlighting examples that highlight specific schools," she said. But the critiques were also important, and were not designed to pick on any college.

"Every school has something that it can change," she said.

 

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