The world changes in tiny moments, in nuanced shifts and opportunities. For low income high school students, especially first generation college students navigating the application process with little support at home, the fine print and financial demands of the college application process are barriers. There are large scholarship funds for students to attend college, but markedly less support for the financial barriers to get there.
AP exams each cost $94, sometimes subsidized to $63 for qualifying low income students: still a substantial burden for competitive high school students taking 3-5 AP classes a year. If colleges require the scores, it’s $15 to send the scores to each college.
Students who qualify can take the SAT twice for free, but any additional times cost $54 a sitting. The ACT is $62.50 to test. To send scores to more than four colleges, after a certain window, students spend between $10-$20 dollars per score report.
Then comes the actual college application process. Students who qualify can apply to up to 4 UC schools for free, and some private schools offer fee waiver options, but most college applications cost $40-$120. Often, the schools with the most financial aid are the private schools, which have the highest application costs.
In my family, as is the case in many middle to upper class families, it was expected that I would apply to college. Once I finished each application, I asked for the family credit card and my parents celebrated the successful completion. It was common in my private high school for students to apply to 7-15 colleges, though I know students apply to many more today.
Our college application process was run like a stock portfolio: diversified. We applied to safety schools, target schools, and reach schools. It was never a question of “if” we would get in, just where. We didn’t place all of our eggs in one basket, and so we marched confidently towards collegiate futures. This strategy came from a college going family culture and is part of the fine print: not as evident to many students in low income communities.
So what often happens to competitive students from low income communities?
Many students forego AP exams, even when they’ve been successful in the classes, because they can’t pull together money. Students who could go into college with credit (saving tuition money) miss out because of the exam fees.
Students who could use one or two more rounds of the SAT or ACT to pull out the competitive score, settle with what they have. The expensive prep courses common in affluent communities are out of reach for these students.
Students don’t diversify applications- they scrape together money to apply to a few schools they are most confident that they will get into. Some decide to go the community college route, because the couple hundred dollar process is too daunting.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 52% of 2011 high school graduates from low-income families enrolled in college immediately after high school, a figure 30 percentage points lower than their high-income peers. Nearly two-thirds of low-income students attend community colleges and for-profit institutions, which often have low graduation rates.
More low income high school students are graduating than ever before, but rates of low income students making the leap to college have stayed stagnant. The data is clear: there’s an opportunity gap. Low income students are getting lost in the fine print of the college going process.
The saddest part about this is that many of these low income students are some of the brightest and highest achieving academically. Some are competitive enough for an Ivy League, but that’s too big of a risk to put all of their chips on Stanford red. This is an opportunity gap.
Many of these high achieving students come from hard working families, often working to contribute to daily family expenses. Some are homeless, many in the foster system, some parenting younger siblings. Even if families support their students’ collegiate aspirations, many don’t have the luxury of supporting a diversified college application portfolio.
Most assume that low income students don’t attend college because of the cost once on the campus; however, we can’t know if that would be true if all high achieving, low income students had the financial support to take AP exams, to take extra SAT and ACT test sessions to boost scores, and to apply to a wide enough range of schools to have a full set of options.
The more applications a student is able to submit, the more likely they are to increase acceptances; the more acceptances, the more financial aid packages to weigh. The end result is more incentive to complete scholarship applications and, most importantly, to see college as a viable option. College cannot be something that their socioeconomic status or family background disqualifies them from.