Low Income American Students More Likely To Face Discrimination In College Admissions

Colleges throughout the United States have made significant efforts to admit more low-income and minority students. While they are undoubtedly sincere in their intentions to help provide educational equity, research shows that there are still a number of barriers preventing low income and minority student populations from being able to attend college — especially in ivy league programs.

A 2017 report, titled “True Merit: Ensuring Our Brightest Students Have Access to Our Best Colleges and Universities,” illustrates the drastic differences between enrollment rates in the country’s most selective colleges and universities between students with the highest and lowest incomes. In essence, it confirms that students at ivy league institutions are mostly wealthy.

“Perhaps the most significant new finding of the report is that the vast majority of students in America’s most competitive institutions of higher education – 72 percent – come from the wealthiest 25 percent of the U.S. population,” the report found. “In sharp contrast, only 3 percent of students in the most selective schools come from the 25 percent of families with the lowest incomes. The report is the first comprehensive analysis conducted on the postsecondary admissions process as it affects high-achieving, low-income applicants.”

These studies have lead a number of those in the education sphere to question why this is true. Those few low-income students who are accepted into ivy programs are just as capable of keeping up with their peers, after all. The same study confirms that 92 percent of students who come from low-income backgrounds end up performing well academically and graduating.

The barrier, it seems, lies around a lack of information about how to pay for college, an underlying fear of paying back student loans, and a lack of understanding about what it takes to apply for and be accepted into these institutions.

There are inequities present in the education system that have the potential to prevent students from being able to accomplish what they aim to do. It’s those inequities that need to be addressed so that each and every student who enters the higher education system is provided equal opportunities for success. This idea is especially prevalent for students in low-income spheres.

This means that leading institutions have to address every aspect of college attendance, including the price of campus housing, meal plans, extracurricular activities, as well as regular tuition and textbook cost in order to make college more affordable to those who are most marginalized.  

“For many high-achieving, low-income students and their parents, enrolling in a top-tier college far from home seems as impossible as taking a trip to Mars,” Harold O. Levy, executive director of the Cooke Foundation argues. “Students are unaware of how to apply for scholarships they are eligible to receive. They can’t afford SAT or ACT preparation course fees. They can’t afford to visit colleges that they are considering attending. And they often need to hold after-school jobs that make it hard to participate in athletics and other extracurricular activities in high school. All this sharply reduces their chances of admission to the most selective colleges and universities, amounting to an unjust poverty penalty levied against outstanding students.”

The report also concludes that adjusting the admissions to be more inclusive has the potential to result in more racial and ethnic diversity than is currently being achieved by U.S. affirmative action policies. Though race-based affirmative action practices have been upheld by the supreme court a number of times, Levy argues that programs which aim to rectify gaps based on income would overwhelmingly aid minority youth.

“For decades, affirmative action has sought to right the wrongs of past discrimination and has opened the doors to higher education and better lives for students from minority groups,” Levy said. “Unfortunately, affirmative action for minorities now faces a very real threat of elimination if the Supreme Court rules it unconstitutional in a case recently argued before the court. A new program of preferential admissions for qualified low-income students would disproportionately benefit minority young people, ensure continued diversity in higher education, and keep the American Dream alive for many students born into struggling families.”

Educational equity is a priority for today’s higher education institutions. For now, students facing economic inequality have had a harder time applying for and being accepted to America’s most prestigious institutions, which, in turn, further widens the gap between those born into poverty and those who come from money. In order to have and keep the best and brightest in today’s higher education system, it’s an issue that will need to be addressed further.

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