How to get more low-income kids through college: After Operation Varsity Blues, focus on what really matters

ByRobert Santos

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The news of a multi-million-dollar college hoax including recognizable names in business and entertainment has dominated headlines over the past week. It has everything: television stars; Wall Street moguls; payoffs and bribes; falsified information — and some of the most prestigious colleges and universities in the country.

But let’s take away the star power. The reality we live each day is a college admissions system that the rich and powerful can bend to benefit their children. As a college counselor at a public charter high school that educates lower income students of color — and as one who beat the odds myself — I can tell you firsthand that what we have seen is business as usual, albeit a sensationalized version. The bad news is that this inequity is entrenched in neighborhoods and schools that have been systematically under-served.

Compared with students from low-income communities, students from wealthy backgrounds are more likely to attend schools with ample funding for transcript-enhancing AP courses and exams; will have access to not just a college counselor, but a low ratio of students to counselors; and will attend a school with a wide array of extracurriculars and school trips.
On top of all that, many have access to family connections, elite recommendations, internships, additional test prep, and at the high end, private college counseling — an industry now worth an estimated $1.9 billion.
And these advantages are sometimes partnered with what are known as “need-aware” admissions, which mean that income level — and a family’s ability to pay full tuition and related fees — is factored favorably into admittance. It’s no secret that full tuition, room, board and supplies frequently skyrockets well past $40,000 (and up to $70,000) at selective colleges and universities. It goes without saying that these figures are far out of reach for the vast majority of New York City public school students.
As a Bronx native and first-generation college student, I was fortunate to get a spot at New York University through an opportunity program supporting low-income and underrepresented students. Most of my peers did not have that same opportunity, and the situation in underserved neighborhoods hasn’t changed much today: Most of my students’ peers don’t have the same access when compared to resources available to students at KIPP NYC College Prep High School.
At KIPP, we have made the decision to take the system head-on. While our students may not have celebrity parents, or the resources to take the fast lane into college, we’ve doubled down on a college preparatory culture and an in-school college counseling program with results that stack up against many higher-income suburban districts where students and their families are far more affluent than ours.
Our signature program, KIPP Through College, features a two-year college readiness sequence that focuses first in the junior year of high school on building the foundations for the college admissions process, and then in senior year on completing those applications from start to finish. We emphasize to students the importance of applying Early Decision, which sets them up for access to a bigger pool of financial aid — while focusing only on those schools that meet full need. We counsel students and their parents, most of whom did not attend college themselves, every step of the way, including on financial planning.
We partner with the College Advising Corps to give our students the personal attention they need throughout this process. We fundraise for college visits, knowing that such a tour helps a student and their parents find the right fit, but also knowing that it’s often financially out of reach for many families.
At the high school where I work, we provide access to advanced level coursework, offering 17 AP-level courses, 19 varsity and junior varsity sports programs, and 24 different art electives in visual arts, graphic design, music, choir, dance and drama.
Our college prep focus has sent 96 percent of KIPP NYC College Prep High School students to college, compared with just 45% of their low-income peers across the country. More than 65% of our students have attended colleges considered “competitive” or higher.
For schools serving lower-income black and Latina students, the importance of a college preparatory school culture and the accompanying resources cannot be understated. Acceptance to competitive colleges can make or break a low-income student’s long-term earning potential, while it has much less of an effect on the incomes of students whose parents are already well off.
A recent study from economist Raj Chetty confirmed that low-income students who gain admissions to elite colleges have a significantly stronger chance of reaching the top 1% of American earners, while low-income students who attended even well-regarded public universities were less likely to do so. Meanwhile, students from wealthy families could expect high earnings in the long-term, whether or not they attended a competitive school.
In other words, wealthy college grads may rely on their parents’ connections and social networks to secure good jobs after college; however, for low-income students, gaining admission to a competitive school can help them transcend their economic circumstances.
The system is built to favor the wealthy. It is up to our policymakers and an active and engaged citizenry to address this fact at an institutional level. But by emphasizing college preparedness, public schools serving low-income students can set more students up for success.
Santos is a college counselor at KIPP NYC College Prep High School.