This story originally appeared on KERA.
Harold Levy knows a thing or two about educating high school students. He’s a former chancellor of New York City public schools.
He says it’s shocking that poor kids who do well academically are being excluded from the nation’s most elite schools.
“I always thought that if you are poor and smart you could write your own ticket and that turns out to be simply not true,” Levy said at a conference last summer.
Levy is executive director of the Virginia-based Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. The group awards scholarships to low-income students who are high performing. Levy says the problem is many poor kids don’t see themselves going to college.
“It is quite an extraordinary thing in this country where we pride ourselves on the American dream of social mobility that these kids do not have a chance,” Levy says.
The new study by Levy’s group finds that only 23 percent of high-achieving, poor students apply to a top college. That’s compared to nearly half of students come from wealthy families and do well in school.
Levy calls this an excellence gap.
“It’s just not that they’re not going to school. The ones who do go to school are under matched so they’re often not going to the best schools that they’re capable of getting into,” Levy says. “That’s no America.”
The report says kids from wealthier families have advantages over their low-income peers – from SAT and ACT prep courses to colleges admitting them because their parents are alums. The foundation says more than 80 percent of the country’s most selective colleges give preference to children of alumni.
Another issue? The lack of adequate counseling in high school – some districts have had to cut back on staff and some counselors aren’t able to spend enough time talking to students about going to college.
Chris Munoz is the vice president for enrollment at Rice University in Houston. He says schools like his need to do more to enroll low-income students. He says Rice is making progress, including enrolling students who are Pell Grant recipients.
“Over the years, Rice has been a leader in that area where anywhere from 15 to 18 percent of our class are Pell Grant recipients and among highly selective universities, that really is pretty good,” Munoz said.
Of the students admitted to Rice who are getting need-based assistance, Munoz says more than half come from families that earn less than $60,000.
Munoz says it’s important to look at other efforts.
“What is the policy of the institutions in terms of encouraging students from low-income backgrounds?” Munoz says. “At Rice, anybody with a family income below $80,000 has no debt as part of their financial aid package.”
That means students would receive aid in the form of grants, scholarships and work study, so they doesn’t have to pay it back.
At the University of Texas at Arlington, there’s a concerted effort to attract more first and second generation students. Michele Bobadilla is a vice president over outreach and community engagement.
“A lot of that has to do with exposure. A lot of these students since they haven’t had someone in their family who has gone to college before them do not have a pattern to model or follow,” Bobadilla says. “So in many cases, there’s a lack of understanding [of] what is college readiness.”
UTA helps high school students through programs like Bound for Success. It’s available in area school districts, including Arlington and Grand Prairie.
The goal? Make sure students get the right counseling – and realize that college is within their reach.