When you grow up as I did with meager means—with a household income of less than $50,000 for a family of five—you pinch pennies, frequent garage sales and sometimes rescue change from the crevices of couches. You do all you can to stretch your limited resources and the idea of losing money or leaving money on the table is anathema.
Yet, with the college application process underway the sad reality is that low-income and historically underrepresented students all across this country are leaving hundreds of thousands of dollars on the table by not applying to the most selective colleges. And as a Latina, a product of the Delaware public school system, Ivy League alumma, and someone who worked in admissions at an Ivy League university, I know all too well how this happens.
In my case, it was a combination of the myth of unaffordability and the belief gap that assumes highly-selective colleges are unattainable. Although I would be the first in my family to go to college and my parents did not know much about the process, there was never a question of whether I would go to college. I had straight A’s, decent SAT scores, and graduated as salutatorian for my class. I always had dreams of attending an Ivy League university. But when the time came to apply my dreams had to contend with the very real and narrow expectations of well-meaning adults.
Most thought our local four-year colleges would be my best and most affordable options. For many students, this type of advising might be true. But if we want to ensure students who can least afford to leave money on the table get access to every resource they worked so hard for, our advising cannot use a broad brush. Against everyone’s advice, I applied to three Ivy League universities: Harvard, Columbia and Cornell. I was admitted into Cornell with a need-based grant of over $60,000 per year. That is a quarter of a million dollars in financial aid that I could have left behind by not considering all of my options.
While many of these colleges cover full financial need for low-income families—which can make them more affordable than state colleges—the full scholarships are not the only resources students are leaving on the table. With large endowments, many selective colleges have resources to waive application fees or enrollment deposits, provide resources to support relocation to and from campus, give funding to support summer research or employment opportunities, cover the cost of studying abroad, and much more. Beyond these immediate benefits, there are studies that find attending a selective college has a major effect on earnings for low-income students and students of color.
However, far too many underprivileged students are working under a narrow set of expectations of what is possible. Over the five years I worked in admissions at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn), I visited hundreds of schools and spoke with thousands of students across the country. I spent a great deal of time encouraging talented low-income students to aim higher and broaden their set of college options. I also encountered students like me during the application process who took a chance and found themselves accessing hundreds of thousands of dollars of aid to attend UPenn.
Now, through my work as the director of the TeenSHARP Delaware Goes to College Academy, a partnership with the Delaware Department of Education, we are helping hundreds of Delaware students find their best-fit college under the best financial terms possible. It starts with empowering students and parents with information about the multitude of options available to them. Students and families need to know about liberal arts colleges, large research institutions, minority-serving institutions, multi-college consortiums, colleges with co-op programs, 4+1 programs, test-optional and test-blind colleges, and no-loan colleges. After being equipped with information and encouraged to reach high, they need the support with navigating an admissions process that can be daunting even for the most well-resourced among us.
We have found that these types of expectations and supports can mean all the difference for students. For one of our alums, it meant she became one of 300 scholars from a pool of over 28,000 to earn a national Gates Scholarship and is also attending Swarthmore as a recipient of their most prestigious merit scholarship. For another alumna from rural Sussex County in Delaware, it means she is attending Middlebury—a school that was not previously on her radar—on a full scholarship. Unlike my path to Cornell, these stories do not have to be left to chance. Let’s help students access everything they have worked so hard for on their path to higher education.