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Poor and Smart? Go to College Anyway

Well-Endowed Universities Are Eager to Admit and Fund Promising Students

Something is missing from our conversation about college access and affordability for Santa Barbara students. Many colleges are more than willing — eager, even — to admit promising students with challenging circumstances. So why don’t low-income students take advantage of these opportunities?

In a recent article, the Independent noted that only 10 percent of last year’s Santa Barbara Unified graduates from a low socioeconomic background went on to a four-year college or university. I’ve worked with low-income college applicants for nearly a decade, first as a private college counselor offering my services pro bono, and now as director of Mission Scholars, a nonprofit dedicated to producing more college graduates from disadvantaged communities.

Photo: Taylor Jones, Hoover Digest

As someone who works with students on a daily basis, I want to clarify an important point: This dismal 10-percent statistic does not reflect a lack of desire. Many of these kids desperately want to go to college. And you don’t have to take me at my word when it comes to their desire to attend college. There is clear evidence in the subtext of the Independent article itself.

That evidence can be found in two points made by the district: (1) The district rightly lauds the SBCC “Promise” program, which provides free community college for all local full-time students; (2) The district further points out that it enjoys a higher-than-average overall college-going rate if you include community college attendance.

Translation: these students want to go to college, and when money is taken out of the equation, they show up.

The tragic thing is that for many students, money is far less of an obstacle than they realize. It’s a catch-22 situation: The students lack the resources to navigate the complicated college admissions and financial aid system — resources that would, ironically, help them gain admittance to four-year colleges and bring the cost of these colleges to within their reach.

The college admissions process is complex for every student, rich or poor, and requires years of careful planning and preparation to generate a successful outcome. For those who are the first in their families to attend college — whose parents never navigated the system themselves and thus have no idea where to start—they simply don’t have access to the same degree of guidance that would enable them to marshal their efforts throughout high school so that their grades, extracurriculars, standardized test scores, and course selection result in their being awarded the immense amount of financial and merit-based aid that exists at many heavily endowed four-year institutions.

They aren’t aware, for example, that any student who is admitted to Olin College of Engineering, which is ranked #3 in the nation among undergraduate engineering programs, automatically receives $100,000 of merit-based financial aid. That’s $100,000 they will never have to pay back, and that’s not counting the need-based assistance they will also receive.

They aren’t aware that at Rice University, ranked among the top 20 in the country, students with a family income under $65,000 receive full tuition, room, and board. That’s a $268,000 value.

They’ve never heard of Washington University in St. Louis, where students with family incomes under $75,000 receive grants in lieu of loans.

They haven’t been told that despite Dartmouth’s annual $76,000 sticker price, students with family incomes under $100,000 receive free tuition.

For Santa Barbara’s low-income students, every conversation about college needs to include an understanding of “no-loan policies.” The list of colleges with no-loan policies is extensive and growing. It now contains more than 70 schools: universities wealthy enough to enable every single one of their financial aid recipients to graduate debt-free. The schools on this list are dream schools for students of all income levels: schools like Amherst, Davidson, Harvard, Bowdoin, Colby, Haverford, Pomona, Stanford, and Swarthmore, among many others.

We should include other scholarship opportunities in the conversation too. Questbridge, for instance, matches their Scholars with a four-year institution — there are 40 venerable universities that partner with Questbridge, including Claremont McKenna, Colorado College, MIT, USC, and Yale — and promises each student a full four-year scholarship.

It’s difficult to become a Questbridge Scholar, or to earn admission to schools like Olin and Rice, but Santa Barbara’s students are known for reaching high. Our wealthier students are routinely expected to shoot for the stars when it comes to college admission, and we should expect the same from every student in our district, including our low-income students.

But first, these students have to be made aware that these possibilities exist, and that any higher expectations we place on them are financially feasible. In my experience, once motivated students understand what is possible, they will rise to any challenge you place before them.

For the best and brightest low-income students, the financial hurdles associated with four-year universities often seem insurmountable. We should focus on building a system of comprehensive college admissions and financial-aid education that helps these students and their families to discover the wide range of assistance that is available to them, and to understand that what they often view as obstacles are actually opportunities.

With two colleagues, Cassie Lancaster started the Mission Scholars nonprofit under the fiscal agency of the Santa Barbara Education Foundation and will consult at Santa Barbara high schools beginning in fall 2019. For more, see missionscholars.org.

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