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Education News

Ivy League 101: Helping More High Achieving, Low-Income Students Apply To Best Colleges

In the United States, we think of our country as a meritocracy. If you work hard, you'll get ahead. But that's not always true for some students. Recent research shows that as many as 35,000 high-achieving, low-income students don't apply to top colleges even though they have the grades to get in.



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Alejandra Possu and Edgar Avina
Alejandra Possu and Edgar Avina are classmates at DeBakey High School

To get into a top college, a student needs good grades and solid test scores.

Then there’s the personal essay that some say is even more important.

Edgar Avina is a senior with a 4.0 GPA at DeBakey High School. He’s working on the fifth draft of his college essay. It’s about how he works cutting grass.

“I cut, ignoring my parched throat, which begs for hydration. I cut away at my uneasiness, forgetting in this moment of toil, my father’s state of health. I cut, trying to dig my mother out of a mound of hospital bills.”

He’s reading his essay to a classmate. They’re both from immigrant families.

“I have fended for my family, working outside endlessly, cutting through the thickets of life’s hardships. In the eyes of my father, I am now a man.”

Edgar is 17 years old. At first he wanted to attend a regional university like Texas Tech. Now his dream school is Yale where he hopes to study engineering.

Alejandra Possu and Edgar Avina
Classmates Alejandra Possu and Edgar Avina read each other their personal essays for their college applications during a Saturday session for seniors with Emerge.

Students like Edgar should be strong candidates for top colleges. But they aren’t, according to recent research.

Chris Avery is a professor of public policy at Harvard University.

“It’s still the case your income and your background are strong predictors of where you end up in college.”

Avery and another professor from Stanford University, Caroline Hoxby, looked at where students from affluent families and students from low-income families with the same academic credentials apply to college. They found the low-income students are much less likely to apply to the country’s most selective schools.

In fact, only 8 percent of those high achieving, low-income students act like their wealthier peers and apply to selective schools.

“What’s at stake really it’s not necessarily the prestige of going to a fancy, well-known, selective college, but just the fact selective colleges tend to support their students better, they tend to have more resources and students are more likely to graduate.”

Avery says for these students, top colleges have so much financial aid they end up being cheaper than less selective schools. But there’s still a stereotype that top colleges are for rich kids.

Edgar says there’s another, more personal reason students don’t apply.

“Many kids in Hispanic families aren’t allowed to go out of state because families want to keep them close. Personally for me, I’m applying to one Texas school. I told my mom, ‘I’m drawing a 500 mile circle and I want to get out of it.’” 

He’s getting expert help from a new initiative in the Houston Independent School District. It’s called Emerge. It’s like private college consulting. Or Ivy League 101.

The Emerge team
The Emerge team: Jharrett Bryantt, Victoria Chen, August Hamilton, Rick Cruz, Danny Rojas and Maryell Hernandez. Cruz and the Emerge advisors provide students with a lot of personalized support to apply to top colleges. The advisors come from similar family backgrounds as their students and can relate to what they’re going through.

“We have students at Harvard, Tufts, at Dartmouth, at Oberlin and MIT.”

That’s Rick Cruz, an assistant superintendent in Houston. He started the program three years ago as a volunteer project.

Now Cruz and a team of advisors are coaching some 300 students at more than dozen schools.

“And so when they see other students like them who’ve done it, it really changes their sense of possibility and sets the bar higher.”

Students get SAT prep. They visit college campuses. They get one-on-one mentoring and lots of help with their personal essay. They’re encouraged to reach for top schools with generous financial aid.

Schools like Yale. Rosalinda Garcia is an assistant dean of students there.

It is competitive and it is expensive but it’s not expensive for everyone. These schools, Yale has so many resources that they’re able to provide full aid to many families. I think the message hasn’t trickled down.”

For students like Edgar going to a school like Yale isn’t just about the prestige or an excellent education.

“Like my dream has always been to retire my parents so they can live in a nice little house and like you know they can cuddle together on porch swing and that’s what Yale would represent, an opportunity to advance, lift your whole family up, basically.

If he makes it to Yale—or any university—Edgar will be the first in his family to attend college.


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