College Access Among Low-Income and First-Generation Students Is Plummeting. What Can We Do About It?

Higher education is experiencing an enrollment crisis, especially among low-income and first-generation students.

Last year, 21.7% fewer high school graduates went on to attend college compared with fall 2019. Break the numbers down further and you’ll see the sharp income disparity. The decrease was only 16.9% among high-income high schools. Among low-income high schools, it was 29.2%.

The coming year’s application period is still active, but the numbers continue to drop. The Common Application reported in November that 8% fewer high schoolers had applied to college compared to that time last year. Among first-generation students and students eligible for a fee-waiver (based on family income), it fell by a staggering 16%.

In the last year, COVID-19 has exacerbated the long-standing access gap in higher education to a critical point. To begin closing the gap, we need to build and implement new, equitable pathways for teens to get into college.

The persisting higher-education access gap has deep roots

Higher education can be key to upward social and economic mobility for many low-income and first-generation students. However, those students have had to climb a much steeper path to college than their wealthy peers have long before the emergence of COVID-19.

In 2014, for example, high schoolers from high-income families attended college at a rate 29% higher than that of students from low-income families (81% of high schoolers from high-income families attended college vs. 52% of high schoolers from low-income families). That gap has held steady since at least 1990.

Similarly, first-generation students have long been far less likely to enroll in college following graduation. Enrollment rates nearly double between first-generation/low-income groups and non-first-generation/non-low-income groups, according to 2013 data collected by ACT Research & Policy.

All along the road to higher education, students from low-income and first-generation backgrounds face disadvantage after disadvantage, including legacy status, essay prep, and grade inflation. A few stark differences emerge when students embark on the application process itself.

First, students who attend public high school in low-income neighborhoods receive significantly less college counseling. Many of them are left to navigate the intimidating and unclear process of applying to college (and for financial aid) completely alone. Compared with the amount of private guidance and coaching some students receive, low-income and first-generation applicants have experiences that are not comparable.

Similarly, standardized test scores are tightly linked to wealth and parents’ education level. Low-income and first-generation students tend to have fewer opportunities to prepare, to receive quality coaching (either through school or a private tutor), and to retake tests. As a result, standardized tests emphasize differences in upbringing rather than minimize them.

For more on the limitations of standardized test scores, read Tests Are Broken and We Shouldn't Fix Them.

COVID-19 is widening the access gap

Teens who don’t have reliable support and guidance in a normal year are faring even worse in the college admissions process under COVID-19.

Application and enrollment rates are falling nearly twice as fast among low-income and first-generation students, according to the same Common App report. Instability from the pandemic reduced access to vital on-campus resources, like the SAT School Day, an important program meant to ensure that everyone has the chance to take a college entrance exam.

According to Akil Bello, the senior director of advocacy and advancement at FairTest: The National Center for Fair & Open Testing, “Every disruption to normal processes will impact low-income families at greater rates.” He explained that while test cancellations and rescheduling represent significant barriers to some students, others “have school counselors, test prep tutors, and independent education consultants to proactively provide solutions.”

In other words, the resources and support students receive have become an even bigger differentiator than usual.

Simultaneously, college admissions counselors are struggling to find fair and equitable ways to approach admissions during COVID-19. “It's going to take a [complete] retraining of how we review applications and what we're looking for,” said Jeff Schiffman, director of undergraduate admissions at Tulane University. “We're kind of figuring it out as we go.”

Some experts believe schools will resort to less equitable practices under so many constraints. With on-campus visits, SAT scores, and spring-semester grades scrambles, colleges may rely on “feeder” (i.e., wealthy suburban) high schools to fill their incoming classes. “Accepting more students from familiar high schools — where enrollment rates have been reliable — could help colleges hedge their bets amid all the uncertainty,” writes Jeffry Selingo, the author of Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admission.

Closing the gap means installing new pathways to higher education

We can’t level out resources nationwide. But we can get more low-income and first-generation kids into higher education if we build and implement college application processes that don’t reflect wealth and background so consistently.

Advocates for equitable access are encouraging colleges to use this moment as an opportunity to consider shedding unfair recruiting methods rather than double down on them. Angel B. Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said, “This is a time for institutions to ask themselves, 'What do we really need to make informed decisions about student's ability to succeed?'"

Already, schools that stopped requiring applicants to submit test scores did not experience the same level of drastic decline in application rate. At the other end of the spectrum, public universities in Florida — which notably refuse to adopt a test-optional policy — saw 50% fewer applications during COVID-19.

Some progressive schools are experimenting with new evaluation methods in place of standardized testing. Many are placing a stronger emphasis on noncognitive traits like grit and passion, which are proven to be significant predictors of success in college and beyond.

“We're thinking about how we might extract characteristics that we would value at Temple,” said Shawn Abbott, vice provost for admissions, financial aid, and enrollment management at Temple University. “Something perhaps like citizenship, or social justice, or tenacity. I think probably every college and university in America right now is having that kind of soul-searching conversation.”

Hello World is building a new kind of application process

Finding a standardized and scalable way to measure characteristics like grit, citizenship, and tenacity is no easy problem, but it’s one we’re passionate about solving.

Our application platform uses a completely new approach to evaluate teens. Instead of test scores and grades, we use videos and creative challenges to reveal who kids and are how they think, not how well they come across on paper.

Most application processes are black boxes. Teens get little to no insight into what other applicants are submitting or how to improve. As a result, students who haven’t had the training and exposure it takes to succeed in an application don’t get a chance to learn before it’s too late. We created a completely transparent process where students can see one another’s applications as they come in and even provide feedback. It gives applicants an opportunity to learn from each other and see diverse examples of success.

Our platform has been live for just over 3 months, and we’ve already matched over 3,000 kids to academic and development opportunities, with an average acceptance rate of 54%. Each time we partner with a new institution, we gain invaluable insight into how we can continue creating a more well-rounded, equitable approach to discovering talent and potential.

For a more in-depth look at the problems we’re trying to solve, check out The Questions that Drive Hello World.

If you’re interested in learning more about the platform or want to discuss hosting an opportunity on Hello World, reach out to us directly. I’d be thrilled to have a conversation about your existing process and how we can work together to discover and elevate more teens into higher education.