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As admissions season descends, warning signs appear for low-income applicants

February 19, 2021
By Jon Marcus

As admissions season descends, warning signs appear for low-income applicants

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 coronavirus 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, she said, “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 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, she watched parents of more affluent classmates drive them to open SAT testing centers several counties away and help them with their application essays.

“It is frustrating to see them not have to worry as intensely as I do,” Hamza 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 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 the pandemic.

“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 federal 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 with large proportions of Black or Hispanic students (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, 29 percent at Rice and Dartmouth. Early decision 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 as 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 with 39 percent of students nationwide who typically qualify for Pell Grants, according to the U.S. Education Department. Of those admitted early to Dartmouth, 15 percent are the children of alumni.

Students from wealthier families have seen their other advantages become considerably greater. The Common App data suggests students are 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 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 in normal times, 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, chief executive 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.

Left to themselves, meanwhile — 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.

“It’s difficult at best under normal circumstances for students to get a good gauge on how much college is going to cost them. I would imagine it’s even more difficult this year,” said Phillip Levine, a professor of economics at Wellesley College and creator of a college-pricing calculator called MyinTuition.

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.”

Monica Nguyenduy, a senior at Ralston High School in Omaha, “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 until she 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.”

All of these things threaten to further widen class and race divides in higher education. Even before the pandemic, students from families in the top quarter of income were one and a half times as likely to finish at least two years of college as those from families in the bottom quarter, the Pew Charitable Trusts reports.

There are some 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.

Virtual appointments and drive-through sessions: How college counselors are helping students complete the FAFSA

The evidence suggests that the inequalities in admission may get even worse as disparities in primary and secondary schools also deepen, Levine said, 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, but for years to come.”

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