Why Smart Poor Students Don’t Apply to Selective Colleges (And How NOT to Fix It)

I graduated from high school in 1977 (I’m 54…to save you the math).  Up until then, I had lived my whole life in Dubuque, a great place to be from, and a city that is probably in better shape today than it was then.  In our family, you went to Catholic School, but after sophomore year of high school, you were on your own for most things, including tuition at the local Catholic High School.  So to make ends meet, I worked at a pizza place called the Shot Tower Inn.  Typically, I’d work one week night and two of the three weekend nights, usually about 25 hours a week; sometimes 32 or 33 in a pinch.  I’d get home about 12:30 and get up for school the next morning at 6:30.  I was young; it wasn’t hard.

I made about $2.10 an hour, if I recall, which was minimum wage.  Had I worked full-time, that would have translated into about $4,400 per year.  From the money I did earn (about $3,000, I guess), I had to pay my tuition, $450 a year, and buy my clothes.

I tell you this because of what happens next: I apply to college (one school, after a five-minute conversation with my best friend about where he was going) and proceeded to fill out a Financial Aid Form.  I was stunned, right off the bat: In that year, my dad’s income was about $17,000.  My mom didn’t work outside the home.  He ran heavy equipment for a living, and had baby fingers bigger in circumference than my thumbs.  He worked hard for about four or five times what I made, but had to support a whole family on it.  It was the first time I knew how poor we were. (I’m not stupid; I never thought we were wealthy.)

I remembered this as I read the well-intentioned but completely off-base article by Derek Thompson in the Atlantic with an almost identical title as this blog post.  What do we learn from Mr. Thompson, who, we’re told, is the Senior Editor, overseeing Business Coverage?

  • The biggest problem in getting smart poor kids to enroll is advertising.  We simply need to tell them in a convincing way that they should go.
  • And we need to stop scaring them with stories of debt.
  • But beyond that, they have to apply to our “best colleges.” I counted for you.  After the headline, he uses the term “selective” eight times.
  • Mr. Thompson thinks you’ll be surprised that 40 percent of top performing students come from the poorer half of the country.
  • This is because–get ready–“…a ‘critical mass’ of the country’s brightest students tend to live in country’s densest and richest in urban areas — New England, New York, southern Florida, coastal California — the poor students who don’t apply to selective schools are more likely to be scattered across the country.

Better yet, the solution is simple.  Just do more of what we already do: “There are four ways that most colleges reach out to students: (1) College board mailing lists; (2) College counselors; (3) College access programs; (4) High school visits.”

Really.  That’s it.  It reminds me of a trustee who once asked me if we ever considered mailing catalogs to high schools.

I’ll let you comment and tell Mr. Thompson how wrong he is about almost everything, and how arrogant he comes across to many people who are either poor or not from those areas with the critical mass of bright people.  Or maybe you can tell him that his failure to recognize how patronizing he sounds to most people–regardless of income or education, I hope–may be part of the problem poor kids face when they think about attending college, especially the “selective” places that don’t enroll many poor kids because they’re unwilling to think differently about what makes someone qualified for admission.  Just comment below.

But for now, a short story: When I was about 28, I worked at the University of Dallas.  I had my degree; I’d been working in admissions for about five years.  One day, I went to a meeting at another college in the Metroplex.  I pulled up and saw student lots full of BMW’s and Mercedes and other fine, imported luxury sedans.  And, in my Ford Escort, I felt intimidated.  I felt like I didn’t belong.  Imagine being 17 and feeling that way.

So, anything you want to tell Mr. Thompson?  Have at it.  If enough of you reply, I’ll send him a link.


Note: I published this on January 29th and the next day, I found this chart from the document “The Condition of Education 2012.” (link here).

Parental Attainment

9 thoughts on “Why Smart Poor Students Don’t Apply to Selective Colleges (And How NOT to Fix It)

  1. Great post! I don’t have quite as elegant of a story, but here goes:

    I was a 1st Gen applicant from a rural public high school in Minnesota in 1983. There wasn’t a private high school option. I was in the top 10% of my graduating class. We didn’t have AP, IB or Honors courses, nor did we have any test prep outside of the high school. Both of my parents worked full-time in order to provide for three boys. College was discussed and encouraged at the dinner table, but I am sure that the military would have been quite acceptable. I was a three sport athlete and worked as a swim instructor / life guard year round. This money was used to help me pay for college. I applied to two state schools and two small privates in the spring of my senior year. The financial aid package from the small privates made the cost roughly equivalent to the state schools, so I chose to attend St. Olaf College. I used work study and student loans to help me finance college. It took me nine years to pay off my student loan debt.

    I didn’t apply to any elite or selective schools. I didn’t entertain the idea of going out-of-state to a school. I had only traveled out of Minnesota one time during a family vacation in my 18 years. I had never flown in a commercial airliner.

    Advertising would not have made a difference in my decision. There was no way that I could afford to go out-of-state to a elite or selective school even if the cost was equivalent because I still would have had to pay the travel cost, which we could not afford. Had I made that decision, I am sure I would have felt out of place and probably not graduated in the same place that I started. Not many smart, under-resourced kids will travel out-of-state to visit a school that they “might” attend, and less will decide to enroll that have never stepped foot on campus.


  2. Thanks, Clark. I believe it’s very important that we understand a junior in high school who has been conditioned since birth to think about going to college is fundamentally different than one who has not been; assuming that at the end of the junior year you can suddenly make up for that is naive, at best.

    A simple Google search on “Effect of parental attainment on college enrollment” yields lots of good studies; we cannot discount the culture aspect in this equation.


  3. Thanks for this post! I completely fell in this category in high school. I did well in high school and took advanced level classes but did not come from a wealthy family. We had one income, I was first generation to college and I worked full time during the summers as well as part time during the school year. I attended a very large public high school and ended up going to small private liberal arts college (which was about 15 minutes from my house). I remember applying to college (it was a solo project). I filled out my application on my own (no help from my assigned counselor), wrote my own essays, paid my own application fees and filled out financial aid forms without my parents assistance. It was hard, but I was smart and figured it out. I wanted to go to college and I was willing to do what it took to get it done, even if that meant doing it alone. I ended up by God’s grace getting accepted and received a full-tuition scholarship. It was an amazing school and I felt it had a nice mix of students who were wealthy and those who were not. However I did find at times the pressure to be able to participate in various activities that my wealthier classmates could easily participate in. I wanted to apply to a variety of highly selective colleges but knew my family (or rather I) could not afford it, since I would have to pay for my own education through work study, loans and scholarships. I think sometimes people think scholarships will solve every problem. It definitely solved the biggest most important one (tuition), but what about living on campus, purchasing books, travel expenses and dear I say it…money for entertainment and fitting in! None of these would be calculated into my overall costs. Therefore, I continued to work part time during the school year in addition to a work study job just so I could keep up with my friends who received monthly allowances from their parents.

    I can tell you from my experience that advertising would not have worked. Only funding from the college would have been able to help me apply to the colleges spoken about in this blog. Even if I was able to somehow afford the tuition, room and board and travel expenses would have been a huge burden since my parents did not contribute to paying for my education. Let’s not even talk about support services on campus. That is essential to keep students like myself enrolled and I am grateful that my college had a wonderful support system in place.

    The way the college I attend got me to apply was through a high school visit program and some nudging by the head of the guidance department at my school. Although I wanted to attend this school badly, I was still unsure of my ability to afford it or fit in with other students. So getting in to a school is only half the battle for a kid like me. I feared meeting my roommate freshman year because I didn’t come from much and thought she might have. I remember move in day vividly…she arrived on campus with her parents and I came by myself. Her parents invited me to dinner (which I accepted) and then dropped their daughter off for the school year, which a supply of snacks and various items to help her settle into college. To make matters worse in my 17 year old mind, I was African-American and my roommate was White. Don’t get me wrong, I was not prejudice and was actually very excited but was nervous that neither my roommate nor her parents would not be as excited as I was. I kept remembering that I was by myself! No snacks, no parents to send me off, just me and my comforter and a few articles of clothing. I can remember how humiliated I felt and I actually ended up commuting due to the financial strain and slight embarrassment.

    I am pleased to say that I ended up living on campus the following year, became very involved in the life of the school and completed my degree on time. I went on and graduated from grad school (twice) and am now a school counselor. Having worked on both sides of the desk (college admissions and now high school guidance), it takes much more than advertising to convince students that 1. they are worthy, 2. they can do it and 3. developing a plan for success! It actually takes hours, days, weeks and years to help build a students self-esteem and it takes trust and commitment from adults in that young persons life.

    Looking back, I would not have changed a thing and I will be forever grateful for the adults in my life who supported me.


  4. As always, Jon, a very thoughtful perspective on this. I continue to hear “market better” and “sell value.” Doing more of what we have been doing won’t get it done. Although I hate to use the phrase, we do need to provide bright students without means with hope that we want them and that a great college education can be accessible. You point out quite clearly that all of this gloom and doom is scaring many away. Oh, and it doesn’t help that we continue to suffer through articles dismissing the value of higher education. Again, well done.


  5. I applied to and was accepted at one of the Seven Sisters in New England. I always knew I would go to college and I wanted to feel like my “brains” were going to be applied to study at a prestigious school. All it took was one two-minute read through of the financial aid package from the prestigious Seven Sisters school and I knew it was the University of Maine for me. In 1993, tuition at the private college was $25000. U of ME was $6000. Math wasn’t even necessary. My education has served me well, as it does any “poor kid with brains” who applies themselves.


  6. Great article and stories. Surprised that “offering a campus visit program” wasn’t another recommend. After watching 2 older brothers drop out after year 1 (one at an out-of-state public, where he received little aid), going to the most affordable public in-state with a good program for my major (not far from Dubuque) seemed like a wise choice, and has served me well. Supportive parents (with encouragement; not financially) made the difference. I just recently moved to a new public institution, in a new state (for me), with a freshmen class that is 40% first-gen, very high Pell eligible rate, and a 63% (gulp) freshmen retention rate. The lack of parent involvement I’ve seen so far should not have surprised me. Educating parents and students on the long-term benefits and value of going to college and staying to earn their degree is critical.


  7. Great post. I did really well on the standardized test, 4.0 at a rural high school and took 2 of the 3 AP classes offered. My high school guidance counselor discouraged me from applying to private schools, so if I’d gone in with any super-selectives I can’t imagine what she would have done – telling me that I could “go to state universities for free.” Granted, yes, that was a concern in my family, as I knew that whatever was going to be paid for college I would be paying for as the oldest of 4 children and a first-generation college student. However, I didn’t WANT to go to State U. – I wanted to be at a place small enough to know most of the students on campus, values-based, and where I would be challenged within a close enough radius to home (3 hours driving was ideal).

    I found my dream school, and though I got a full-tuition scholarship upon acceptance based on test scores and GPA, I found out that staffords, my pell and work study allotment wouldn’t cover room and board, so I wouldn’t be able to go unless I happened to win the competition for the tuition, room, and board scholarship. (I did). Thank God for that, plus I got to tell my guidance counselor that private schools are just as inexpensive as state schools (in the right situation, of course) and the education that I got there has so much more value to me.


  8. Great post, Jon. I was also a first gen kid (a little older than you are) from a lower income family. I’ve never forgotten how when I went to talk to my school guidance counselor in my junior year of high school he said, “College isn’t for you because your family is too poor. You should be thinking about how to find a job so you can help your famlly.” When I protested that I wanted to go to college, he said, “Well, if that’s the case, you might consider going to Katie Gibbs Secretarial School.” I went home that afternoon and told my mother what the counselor had said, and she said “You’ll prove him wrong!” Which, indeed, I did, going on to earn not just a Bachelor’s but also a Master’s.

    As a college advisor, I work Iwith many first gen students, many of whom are facing much more challenging life circumstances than i did at their ages. I also work with many students from well-off, well-educated famlies, whose only worry in life is earning A’s in AP classes. All of my students are wonderful kids, but I must admit that my approach with the two groups is different. My students from well off families ask me questions about the “tricks” for getting into a “good” college, which most often means “a college that is higher ranked than the ones my parents went to.” They don’t need reassurance that college is for them; they already fully believe they’re entitled to attend the “best” schools possible. My first gen students, on the other hand, are often amazed when I tell them that they are aiming way too low in their post-high school plans, that they have wonderful things to offer colleges and the larger world, and that yes, they CAN go to a great college and that doing so will change their lives, just as it changed mine.

    All of which is a long winded way of saying that what first generation students from low income families need is NOT more “advertising,” but rather a real live person who believes that they can be successful in college, even if their grades and test scores aren’t “perfect” and tells them that “college IS for you.” In my case, this person was my mother, who told me that it didn’t matter what my counselor, or anyone else said; I could – and would – prove them wrong. While there probably aren’t many school counselors who still tell first gen kids “college is not for you” as blatantly as my school counselor did, I know my first gen students still get that the same message in more subtle ways, sometimes unwittingly, especially when colleges brag about their impossible admissions rates, or boast about their high “average” test scores. It’s also sent – again, sometimes unwittingly – when colleges tell first gen/low income students that “we have great financial aid!” while neglecting to mention the percentage of students who are gapped in the college’s financial aid offers or the astronomical debt levels of their graduates (and non-graduates). To a first gen student, that feels “bait and switch,” and it is like my guidance counselor saying to me years ago, “College isn’t for you because your family is too poor.” I also agree with the poster above who suggested that educating parents is important. I would love, for instance, to see more colleges providing at least some basic information about admissions, financial aid, and their academic programs on their admissions websites in Spanish, Russian, Somalia, and Vietnamese so that parents whose English skills aren’t strong don’t feel shut out of helping their children.


  9. I think one of the biggest challenges for first gen students (and their families) is navigating the college search/application process. Let’s face it – the FAFSA is daunting even for parents who did attend college! The New York State Association for College Admission Counseling (NYSACAC) runs an excellent program called Camp College on two different college campuses (with two different cohorts of high school students) each summer. The purpose of the program is to encourage the college aspirations of first gen students and to also demystify the process for them. We offer workshops on essay writing, financial aid, “fit,” etc. As importantly, the students get access to a college campus, living in the residence hall for two nights, eating in the dining hall, visiting the student center, etc. We are very proud of the program, as are several other states who offer similar programs. (I have participated in the NJACAC’s Camp College as well.)


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