NPR for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Colleges Guide Low-Income Students From Getting In To Graduating

President Obama wants to see more low-income students enroll in college, but actually graduating is becoming a priority.
President Obama wants to see more low-income students enroll in college, but actually graduating is becoming a priority.

Bryn Mawr College is located just outside Philadelphia, but every year the school goes looking for students in Boston.

Bryn Mawr typically admits 10 low-income students from the Boston area each year, providing them with financial assistance and introducing them to one another in hopes that they will form a network and support each other as they navigate their college years.

Bryn Mawr doesn't stop in Boston. Working with the nonprofit groups Posse Foundation and College Match, the college actively seeks to enroll low-income students who show great promise.

"We're particularly interested in reaching women who might not otherwise attend a place like Bryn Mawr," says Kim Cassidy, the college's president.

Cassidy is among roughly 150 college presidents and officials from states, industry and nonprofits who will be attending a daylong meeting at the White House on Thursday.

The goal is to find new ways to promote success among low-income students. Higher education is generally seen as the ladder toward economic success, but too few kids are able to climb on and stay on.

President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama have made college access and affordability ongoing priorities. Now, they not only want to see more low-income students enroll; they're also prodding colleges to figure out ways to get them to graduate.

It's a big challenge. Children from homes at the bottom earnings quintile have a much lower chance of getting into selective schools than members of racial minorities, to say nothing of children from wealthy homes.

"The dirty little secret of American higher education is that universities care about racial diversity and do a good job of trying to promote that, but they completely ignore the issue of socioeconomic diversity," says Richard Kahlenberg, an education scholar at the liberal Century Foundation.

Application Failure

A recent Georgetown University report showed that among top-performing high school students who hail from the bottom half of the income distribution, fewer than half go on to receive post-secondary degrees.

Not all universities go looking for poor kids. They are less likely to pay full tuition than students who are wealthy or hail from out of state — or even overseas.

"There's very little incentive for universities to address a lack of economic diversity," Kahlenberg says. "Racial diversity is much more visible, and socioeconomic diversity is much more expensive to address because you have to provide financial aid."

Many schools do offer poor kids steep discounts off the sticker price. Bryn Mawr, for instance, is charging $42,870 for tuition in the current academic year but offers financial aid to more than half its students and cuts the published tuition price on average by 43 percent.

But money isn't the only road block that low-income students face. Students whose parents didn't go to college might not get all the guidance they need for navigating the application process, filling out financial aid forms and planning out, months in advance, strategies for getting recommendations and finding schools that are the right fit.

"There are some families where the cost of your application fee is a serious question around the family dinner table," says Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, an association of colleges and universities. "These are real factors why some academically qualified students never go to college."

Sending Some Help

Colleges and universities vary widely in terms of the effort they make in recruiting low-income students, and whether those students go on to graduate or simply rack up debt.

Sometimes simple techniques — such as waiving application fees — can make a big difference in terms of student enrollment and eventual success.

"Poverty has its own gravitational force," says Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. "A blown gasket can be the difference between going to college or not."

A Stanford University found that simply providing low-income students who are top achievers with basic information about colleges not only led more of them to apply but also was associated with higher graduation rates.

Building off that finding, the College Board, which administers the SAT, is sending out information packets that walk high-scoring students through the maze of application and financial aid forms.

"That program is being piloted in some states, but based on the results, it might be scaled out," says Joseph Yeado, a policy analyst with the advocacy group Education Trust.

The Need For Recruitment

When she was president of the University of North Carolina, Broad sent volunteers to high schools throughout the state, encouraging students who had not yet applied to college to do just that.

"The result in North Carolina was an impressive increase in the number of students enrolling in the university from rural and low-income areas," Broad says.

The American Council on Education is now helping to replicate that model in 39 states, with hopes of being in all 50 by the end of the year.

It's one of a number of ideas that will be promoted at the White House event. The price of admission is bringing in stories about efforts that are already underway, or that institutions pledge to start.

"Often, we're reinventing the wheel, but sharing ideas with other schools means they can do it, too," says Cassidy, the Bryn Mawr president.

Individual institutions can do a lot on their own. They may have to. No one seems to think the administration will use the meeting to launch any huge new policy initiatives, although that's always a possibility.

The mere fact that the White House is devoting so much time and attention to this effort should be helpful, however — if only in convincing donors that the cause of aiding low-income students throughout the college experience is worthwhile.

"Other administrations have focused on the need for all students to go to college," says Yeado, the Education Trust analyst. "While that's certainly true, low-income students and students of color are being left behind. Some are in college but certainly not graduating at rates equal to their peers."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.