Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Helping low income students with college applications

David Leonhardt in the NY Times recently wrote about ‘A National Admissions Office’ for Low-Income Strivers, about a nonprofit company called Questbridge.

He writes that it "has quietly become one of the biggest players in elite-college admissions. Almost 300 undergraduates at Stanford this year, or 4 percent of the student body, came through QuestBridge. The share at Amherst is 11 percent, and it’s 9 percent at Pomona. At Yale, the admissions office has changed its application to make it more like QuestBridge’s."
"QuestBridge has figured out how to convince thousands of high-achieving, low-income students that they really can attend a top college. “It’s like a national admissions office,” said Catharine Bond Hill, the president of Vassar.
"College admissions officers attribute the organization’s success to the simplicity of its approach to students. It avoids mind-numbingly complex talk of financial-aid forms and formulas that scare away so many low-income families (and frustrate so many middle-income families, like my own when I was applying to college). QuestBridge instead gives students a simple message: If you get in, you can go.
The group’s founders, Michael and Ana Rowena McCullough, are now turning their attention to the estimated $3 billion in outside scholarships, from local Rotary Clubs, corporations and other groups, that are awarded every year to high school seniors. The McCulloughs see this money as a wasted opportunity, saying it comes too late to affect whether and where students go to college. It doesn’t help the many high-achieving, low-income strivers who don’t apply to top colleges — and often don’t graduate from any college.

“Any private scholarship given at the end of senior year is intrinsically disconnected from the college application process,” Dr. McCullough said, “and it doesn’t have to be.”

They plan to offer prizes in some cases to high school juniors, like a summer program or a free laptop, to persuade them to apply. To win the prize, the junior would need to fill out a detailed application, which could become the basis for his or her college application. The idea draws on social science research, which has shown that people often respond better to tangible, short-term incentives (a free laptop) than to complicated, longer-term ones (a college degree, which will improve your life and which you can afford). Two pilot programs started with donors — one focused on New Yorkers, one on low-income Jewish students — have had encouraging results, the McCulloughs say.
"It has an early application deadline, in late September, and a long application form, designed to get students to tell the story of their lives.

"Crucially, the program promises a scholarship not just for one year but for four. As Mrs. McCullough, the organization’s chief executive, said, “Unless you make that kind of promise to the students and their parents, they’re going to worry, ‘Will the schools really pay for all four years?’ ”
"The winners of the scholarships — which colleges pay for, as they do for much of QuestBridge’s budget — go through a matching process. They attend their first choice among any of the 35 participating colleges that admit them. Hundreds of scholarship finalists who don’t win are admitted separately to the colleges, through a more typical admissions process, often with nearly full scholarships. The students form a support network for one another, they say."
"As much as QuestBridge has grown, it of course remains tiny relative to the population of college-ready, low-income teenagers. Only a small slice of them will attend colleges with the resources to offer full scholarships. That’s why the larger lessons of QuestBridge are so important.

"What are they? One, the complexity of the financial-aid process is scaring students away from college. “You don’t even know what it’s talking about half the time,” Mr. Parker said of the federal form. The Obama administration has taken steps to simplify it, but a full revamping would require help from Congress.

"Two, large amounts of well-meaning scholarship money — from private sources as well as from Washington and state governments — is fairly ineffectual. It helps many students who would graduate from college regardless, rather than those with the skills to graduate who are at risk of not doing so.

"Three, not every problem created by inequality is fiendishly difficult to solve.

"Yes, many of them are, from growing gaps in health and family structure to struggling public K-12 schools. Yet some gritty teenagers, like Ms. Trickey and Mr. Slate, still figure out a way to emerge from high school with stunning résumés. They’re on track to become quintessentially American success stories — and far too many of them still end up falling short."

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