By Jon Marcus
on February 19, 2021
Aya Hamza’s academic and extracurricular record at Coral Gables Senior High School near Miami should have made her path to college relatively effortless.
Instead, the process brought her to tears.
The crying came when the 17-year-old was trying to make sense, on her own, of the complex form required to apply for the financial aid she needed as the first in her low-income family to go to college.
It was one of many challenges, exacerbated by the restrictions of the Covid-19 pandemic, that are inordinately affecting college applicants like Hamza.
Her appointments to take the SAT college entrance exam were canceled four times, until she finally decided to skip it. Her parents couldn’t help much. Her guidance counselor — one of nine in her school, for 3,000 students — was busy dealing with the challenges of remote learning; even when the counselor had time to answer questions, Hamza could communicate with her only by email, text or, occasionally, on FaceTime.
“They’re incredibly overburdened and I feel like I’m furthering their burden,” said Hamza, adding that she was grateful for the support she received from her counselor and teachers. Largely alone, however, “It was really frustrating to have to piece everything together. There’s a lot of fine print I just didn’t understand.”
A senior class vice president with a long list of extracurricular accomplishments and honors courses, Hamza ultimately managed with pro bono help from a college admissions consulting company to hammer together her applications to Harvard, Stanford, Princeton and other top schools.
As she struggled to submit them by the deadlines, however, she watched parents of more affluent classmates drive them to open SAT testing centers several counties away and help them with their application essays — something Hamza wished her parents, immigrants from Iraq, could do.
“ ‘Oh, yeah, my dad edited it,’ ” friends would complain to her. “ ‘Isn’t it so frustrating when your dad helps you?’ And I would say, ‘Um, no,’ ” said Hamza.
“It is frustrating to see them not have to worry as intensely as I do,” she said.
Hamza’s struggle is a microcosm of the many ways that the pandemic is worsening the college admissions challenges faced by applicants from families at the bottom of the income scale while heightening the advantages enjoyed by those from families at the top.
“This is hitting our students in such a more exacerbated way than it’s hitting white, higher-income students,” said Claire Dennison, chief program officer of uAspire, which helps low-income and first-generation families navigate the college admissions and financial aid maze. “They have always faced roadblocks on the way to college, and they certainly have more of those now.”
There are already clear indications that fewer low-income, first-generation, Black and Hispanic students are applying to college for the coming year than in the past, while their wealthier classmates have been less affected by the restrictions imposed in response to Covid-19.
“There’s a lot more murkiness for everyone about this application process,” said Katie Burns, a former admissions officer at MIT and now a counselor at IvyWise, the private company that helped Hamza. “But I see it impacting low-income students the most.”
The Common App, a shared application accepted by more than 900 colleges and universities, reports an increase in the total number of students submitting it this year. But the number whose family incomes were low enough for them to have the fee waived fell by 2 percent and the number whose own parents never went to or finished college, by 3 percent.
While there’s been a nationwide decline of more than 12 percent in the number of students filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, the form required to receive financial aid for college, the drop has been much bigger at high schools where most of the students are low income (16 percent) and at schools with large proportions of Black or Hispanic students (down 18 percent) than at higher-income high schools and those with low Black and Hispanic enrollment, according to the National College Attainment Network.
The number of students who applied to college this year through early decision programs, meanwhile, increased by double-digit percentages at some of the nation’s most elite colleges and universities —57 percent at Harvard, 38 percent at Yale and the University of Virginia and 29 percent at Rice and Dartmouth. Early decision is typically offered by more selective institutions and locks in applicants who are accepted, even before they see how much financial aid they’ll get. For that reason, it has traditionally benefited students from higher-income families.
The proportion of high-achieving students from families making more than $250,000 a year applying through early decision is nearly twice that of high-achieving students from families that make less than $50,000, research commissioned by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation shows. (The foundation is among the funders of The Hechinger Report, which produced this story.) Applicants for early decision are also three times more likely to be white than those who apply for regular admission, according to the Center for American Progress.
Of those admitted early to Harvard this year, just under 15 percent are low income as determined by their eligibility for federal Pell Grants, compared to 39 percent of students nationwide who typically qualify for Pell Grants, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Of those admitted early to Dartmouth, 15 percent are the children of alumni.
About 450 colleges and universities offer early decision or early action in admission, according to the College Board, and take as many as half of their students that way, meaning half of next year’s freshman class at some campuses is already full.
Those early decision applicants who weren’t rejected outright will roll over into the general application pool, making it unusually competitive, even as most institutions are also holding seats for students admitted last year who delayed enrolling because of the pandemic.
Students from wealthier families have seen their other advantages become considerably greater. The Common App data suggests they’re spreading wider nets by applying to more colleges and universities — nearly six apiece, up from about five last year — most of which charge application fees of from $25 to nearly $100.
And that’s just the average number of applications per student. “Private schools will tell their students to apply to 20” universities and colleges, said Cynthia Blair Tognotti, a private college counselor in Northern California. “This year we’re looking at 30.”
Wealthier families have also been able to pay for tutoring, private college counselors and test prep; although submitting tests is optional at more than 1,650 colleges and universities this year, families are convinced a good score can still help in admission.
“I know people personally who will drive their children from California to Utah to take the [SAT or ACT] and stay overnight in a hotel,” said Angel Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. “These are luxuries that many families in this country do not have, so there absolutely is an advantage there.”
Private college counseling cost an average of $200 an hour in 2017, the last year for which the figure is available from the Independent Educational Consultants Association. Tutoring and test-prep companies such as Signet Education report record business, the company’s president and chief operating officer said in an interview.
Less-selective colleges and universities, which were desperate to fill seats as the pandemic began last spring, offered financial aid to students from higher-income families that didn’t meet the federal definition of having financial need. This continued a trend that was underway before Covid, when students from families earning $120,000 a year or more were receiving an average of $9,400 in financial aid from bachelor’s degree-granting colleges in excess of what the government says they needed to afford to pay, according to the College Board.
Combined higher education pandemic-related losses are more than $180 billion so far, according to new estimates by the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School and HelioCampus. Against that backdrop, the temptation for colleges and universities to accelerate the leveraging of financial aid as a way to attract tuition-paying students will be great this spring, said Pérez of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
“Institutions are going to feel pressure to raise as much revenue as possible,” Pérez said. “That could potentially disadvantage lower-income students.”
Those kinds of financial pressures mean that admissions officers at less-selective institutions are asking themselves right now whether to even admit a low-income student instead of “a student with a 2.0 GPA who can pay the tuition,” said Burns, the IvyWise counselor. Colleges, she said, “need to be able to pay their bills.”
Already, said Tognotti, “I’ve seen some very generous merit aid” — the term colleges give this practice. “The shocker is the kids getting $25,000” despite mediocre high school grades.
Since Black and Hispanic applicants are more likely to be from lower-income families, according to federal figures, that creates yet another squeeze for colleges because of something else that has dominated the last year: renewed calls for racial equity and justice in the wake of the George Floyd killing.
Many in higher education broadcast their commitments to diversity at the time, said Dominique Baker, an assistant professor of education policy at Southern Methodist University who studies college access and success.
Now “they have to think really hard about what signals they’re sending, about who they accept,” said Baker, a former assistant dean of admissions at the University of Virginia. “This is the time when they get to put their money where their mouth is.”
Then, again, left to themselves — as so many have been during the pandemic — even the highest-achieving low-income students don’t apply to some colleges because they overestimate the price, researchers report. And without college counselors readily available, they’re missing scholarship application deadlines.
That is now made worse by the recession, which has been especially pronounced among lower-income families, said Levine, author of the forthcoming book “Mismatched: The Economics of Financial Aid and College Affordability.” “There’s lack of information, there’s actual hardship, and that’s compounded with a greater amount of uncertainty. It’s a triple whammy.”
Monica Nguyenduy, a senior at Ralston High School in Omaha, Nebraska, “really went into the college process blind,” she said. Nguyenduy’s parents, who didn’t go to college, both work full time, “so it’s just not easy for me to ask them.” She almost missed the deadline for submitting her first two applications and fell back on the internet for advice.
“I was not prepared at all,” said Nguyenduy, 17, who plans to eventually go to medical school. Everything she did, she said, “was really rough. I didn’t have the guidance.” Eventually, Nguyenduy reconnected virtually with a national nonprofit called College Possible, which had been helping her before the pandemic interrupted the arrangement.
Her wealthier classmates, she said, “are not as stressed about this college process. They had previous exposure through their parents going to college. And money was not an issue. They’re more relaxed.”
All of these things threaten to further widen class and race divides in American higher education. Even before the pandemic, students from families in the top quarter of income were one and a half times more likely to finish at least two years of college than those from families in the bottom quarter, the Pew Charitable Trust reports. Twice the proportion of white workers have bachelor’s degrees or higher than Hispanic workers, according to research by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce.
Only 19 percent of Black and Hispanic high school seniors with high SAT scores ended up in selective universities before the pandemic, compared to 31 percent of whites with similar scores, the Georgetown Center says.
There are a few hopeful signs. Virtual college fairs seem to have reached people admissions recruiters wouldn’t have visited in normal years, for example. “ ‘None of these schools would have ever come to our town,’ ” Pérez recounted one student from rural Iowa telling him.
But small gestures like that “aren’t showing up in the data,” Levine said.
Instead, he said, the evidence suggests that the inequalities in admission may get even worse as disparities in primary and secondary schools also deepen, affecting future low-income, first-generation, Black and Hispanic applicants.
“You’re talking about problems in access that this pandemic is going to create not just this pandemic year,” he said, “but for years to come.”
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