Pulling Back the Invisibility Cloak: Redefining Who Is Underserved During the College Admissions Process

Introduction

The world of college access is one filled with misinformation, misplaced funds, and misunderstanding, keeping millions of students from not reaching their full potential. One of the main arguments that comes up when discussing higher education access, however, is which underprivileged students should be receiving valuable but seemingly limited resources that could help them throughout their admissions process.

But before there can be any talk of solutions for underserved youth, there needs to be a discussion of the many issues that can arise when trying to dole out resources to those who need it the most. Enter the huge problems Bloomberg Philanthropies faced this past fall when they tried to do some good in the world of college access and it almost entirely backfired.

The Bloomberg Dilemma

In October 2014, Bloomberg Philanthropies, a foundation under the umbrella of media giant Bloomberg LP, launched a new initiative to help first-generation and low-income students get into more selective colleges in the United States. The program boasted a “groundbreaking” approach, using mentorship for college students, informational videos from Khan Academy, and other resources from well-known companies like The College Board (Bloomberg 2014). At first glance, the program looked robust and well intentioned; however, it soon came under fire for several reasons.

First and foremost, Bloomberg’s college access initiative required an application for any high school student interested in joining the program. One of the questions on this application asked for the student’s approximate family income, which is normal for college access organizations (both nonprofit and for-profit) to ask. People, however, took issue with the fact that the income brackets did not just separate students between general socioeconomic divisions (low-income, middle-income, and high-income) like most programs do, but rather sought to find students who were not just socioeconomically disadvantaged, but barely scraping by. Students who were traditionally categorized as “low-income” were rejected from the program in favor of more socioeconomically disadvantaged peers. In other words, Bloomberg had ranked how “poor” students were and sought to only help those only at the far end of that spectrum. This was an obvious flaw: Just because a student’s family is making $25,000 per year instead $20,000 per year does not mean that the student is much more privileged and less deserving of help. That student is still living below the poverty line.

A second issue that Bloomberg ran into with its initial plan for the initiative was its pledge to have over 4,000 college students (mostly first-generation students from low-income background) from “selective” and “prestigious” universities mentor these students to help them get into school (Bloomberg 2014). While Bloomberg was most likely well-intentioned with this notion, critics pointed out another seemingly obvious problem: There is no correlation between where a student goes to college and their knowledge of the college process. In other words, just because a student goes to Harvard does not mean that he or she must automatically know more about how to get into college than someone at the University of Massachusetts.

Because of the fiasco that ensued, Bloomberg has since backtracked on its college access initiatives and made some important changes. For one thing, the application has fewer income brackets to choose from (now it’s just $0-$40,000 per year, $40,000-$75,000 per year, and $75,000 and above), no longer trying to only serve students who were as close to the $0 mark. Furthermore, Bloomberg changed its initial press release on the initiative to say that it seeks to help first-generation, low-income, and moderate-income students. Bloomberg also changed its language regarding who the mentors for the students in the program will be, taking out the piece about college students acting as college counselors and more as support for high schoolers in the program. An academic spin began to emerge as well, with Bloomberg now claiming that it will have professors and scholars on hand to measure the impacts of the project, something it did not seek to do previously.

I was perplexed by the Bloomberg college access initiative’s blunders not only because of how obvious they seemed, but also because they pointed to larger issues that I have personally grappled with for several years now: What does it mean for students to be “underserved,” how many students are being left out of this category of “underserved,” and what different types of resources do all of these underserved students need?

My Background in College Admissions

High School

Throughout middle school and high school, the college admissions process and what it meant to get into a “good” school was fascinating to me. Because both of my parents were first-generation college students, education was of extreme importance in our family, and in my household, it was not a question of if I would go to college, but where I would go. Because of the emphasis on education, my parents did make some sacrifices so that I could go to a Jacksonville-based private college preparatory school in the hopes of helping me make the most of higher education in the future.

While I did have the privilege of attending a smaller school with better academics and more personalized attention on students and their college admissions processes, there were several inefficiencies within the school’s college counseling department. For one thing, the college counselors did not seem to have any knowledge of schools outside of the southeastern United States, and many did not even know of non-public schools in the region. To me, this did a great disservice to students who wanted more options than Florida’s state school system or something similar in nearby states. Additionally, laziness was an issue amongst some of the college counselors; in one case, I had a friend who was dissuaded from applying to a particular school because his college counselor refused to look up the college’s convoluted financial aid policy to talk him through it. Since this was a college he was strongly considering going to if he got in, his entire future changed because his college counselor just did not feel like looking something up.

Within this issue, another one arose: There was not much emphasis in the school put on why people even go to college in the first place, but more so on the process of getting in and doing well academically during one’s freshman year. Unsurprisingly, many students from my high school have had trouble adjusting to college life over the years, with many transferring to community colleges or dropping out entirely. Others have finished their college careers and are now sitting on one, two, or even three years of unemployment.

I internalized many of these problems and concerns, and while I did not really acknowledge them to anyone else other than my parents, I stayed interested in education and college access reform heading into my freshman year at Wesleyan University in September 2012.

College and The Prospect

After a successful but definitely quarter life crises-filled first semester at Wesleyan, I met another student online through a separate college admissions mentoring program interested in college access reform. Steven Gu, a then-sophomore at Swarthmore College, was a first-generation college student and first-generation American, with his parents having immigrated to the United States several decades prior. Steven had a number of frustrations regarding his college admissions experience, feeling like he had received no support at school or at home. While he liked Swarthmore, he was not convinced that it was the best fit for him, but he did not have any inkling of how he could go about finding a “better” school. Steven also wished he could have talked to other students about all of the trouble he was having in the hopes of finding better solutions.

Putting our heads together, we eventually started TheProspect.net in February 2013, a college admissions website where college students could write about their experiences with the college process in the hopes of helping high school students going through the same thing. Steven and I were both very clear about one thing: We would not paint our student contributors as “experts” (since many of them had not gone through a college counseling training program). Instead, our website would be able pointing out helpful tidbits of advice as well as resources that could make the student experience easier when applying to college. All of our articles come with the caveat that students need to continue doing more research and should not solely rely on just our website for college admissions guidance; instead, we are a great and accessible start point for students who have no other place to turn to for admissions help, and we also help a lot of our readers find the other resources they need to get where they want to go.

Additionally, Steven and I both threw the term “underserved students” around quite a bit in the early days, saying that we wanted our site to primarily help low-income, first-generation, and minority students who might not have the support elsewhere to get through the process. And while these efforts were noble, I now see why this line of thinking was problematic.

I remember the first time I received a complimentary email from a reader who did not fit our traditional “underserved” student. She was a white student from a lower-middle class family, but she went to a high school with over 3,000 students, and even though she was several months into her senior year, she had never even met her school’s college counselor in person. Because one of her parents had gone to community college, many extracurricular college access programs considered her ineligible to receive their help (because she was not considered “first-generation”). She thanked us for giving her the resources that she would not have been able to get on her own from school, home, or other sources. This was the first time I realized that we had to rethink who our audience was and how we described who they were and how they were underserved.

This was definitely the first of many emails we started to receive (and continue to receive) from students who felt like they were unable to get help elsewhere because they did not receive guidance through traditional but also did not fit this “underserved” mold. In one of the worst cases, a student emailed us to talk about how she was turned down from an admissions mentoring program essentially because she was Asian, considered the “model minority.” Ridiculous? Steven and I both thought yes, but we still had no idea how to categorize these students who were not part of the “underserved students” conversation.

Looking Back on The Prospect Two Years Later

Two years after its launch, The Prospect has done quite a bit: We have had over 2 million page views on our site, with over 650,000 visitors from over 190 countries worldwide. Our team consists of over 140 high school and college contributors, all under the age of 22. We also have about half a dozen other youth empowerment programs besides our blog to help high school and college students, including a virtual high school internship program, an online magazine, a high school blog network, and a lot more. We have seen press on websites like Forbes and Mediabistro, and despite all of this, I am still entirely uneasy about how we throw around the term “underserved” when talking about the students our organization serves.

My biggest problem is that, in its current form, the college admissions process leaves many students underserved, not just those who are low-income, first-generation, or minority students. I am definitely not saying that these students are not underserved; I am saying that the definition should be expanded, as doing so allows for greater understanding of the huge gaps in the high school education system as well as how the college admissions process works in its current form. For example, I have learned that just because a student’s parents went to college does not mean they are knowledgeable about the process, and just getting students into college should not be the endgame as many college access organizations paint it to be. In other words, there are these “invisible underserved” students that major college access initiatives are not reaching.

I am hoping to answer several major questions within the realm under underserved students in the college admissions process:

  • What are the current definitions for “underserved” students? What problems and implications stem from these definitions?
  • What other students should fit under this umbrella of underserved youth that are not typically helped?
  • How can we better serve those students who are not traditionally thought of as “underserved”?

Methodology

This article is an extensive literature review combined with an autoethnography that looks at college access, the admissions process, and resources for underserve students. Research began with a Google Scholar search to learn more about traditional academic definitions for underserved students in addition to research looking at other categories of students that do not receive adequate college admissions counseling and support. From there, greater policy research required in-depth reading of admissions reports and books regarding college access. Additionally, research also looked at general statistics for the support and counseling underserved students receive (or don’t receive) during the admissions process.

Examining the Literature

When examining college access and who is still “underserved” in this category, there are several factors to highlight, including how scholars and education experts define “underserved,” what students are left out of the mix who are not receiving the help they need, and the current systems in place to try and help underserved students (and the problems with those systems).

What Is the Basic Definition of an “Underserved” Student?

Traditional Definition

One interesting thing about the academic literature regarding underserved students is that few scholars point to a hard-and-fast definition of what they mean by “underserved.” Of those who do, there seems to be similar agreement that these students are “low-income students, those who are first in their families to attend college, and students of color” (Green 2006). Thus, college access research on inadequately aided students tends to either look specifically at one of these groups in a particular academic setting, or how academic settings affect generally “underserved” students. This term is also meant to be more inclusive, nuanced, and political correct than other previous terms used to describe these students (like “inner city” or “disadvantaged”).

Other Considerations When Defining Underserved Students

There are other factors that play into this idea of the underserved student. For one thing, it is assumed that these students want to go to college but cannot find or have access to the resources to do so. Study after study points to similar statistics about how 90% of high school students say they want to go to college, but only a fraction of those students enroll in a higher education institution, let alone finish the first year and return for a second (Venezia 2005). Thus, these students are not just unable to obtain resources needed to apply to, successfully enroll in, and attend college; they are also the students who really want to pursue higher education.

An additional component to consider is that many of these students who are considered underserved do not fit solely into one “category.” For instance, many low-income students are also students of color (and many are also first-generation students). There are no lines of distinction between these different categories, as they are all inextricably linked to bigger racial and socioeconomic implications that exist within society.

What Students Are Technically Not “Underserved” But Are Inadequately Aided?

After examining the pre-existing literature and studying its connotations, there appear to be a plethora of students that are still underserved in terms of college access but are largely not studied or not talked about compared to other groups that are more traditionally considered underserved.

Generation 1.5 Students

There are some scholars who do try to expand this traditional definition. For example, Laura Rendon and her colleagues also add in what is called “Generation 1.5” to this group of underserved youth (Rendon 2006). While there is some leeway as to who is part of Generation 1.5, the basic idea is that these students’ parents are foreign-born (and may even be foreign-educated or a mix of foreign- and U.S.-educated), and therefore English might not be their first language. Linguistic and cultural barriers make these students underserved in the education system on many fronts as they go down the academic pipeline.

For example, they may struggle with reading, writing, and grammar in school, and since their parents may not be able to help break down these concepts, these students’ performance suffers. These same issues come into play during the college admissions process: College applications and financial aid forms are already hard enough for native English speakers to understand, but a student who is not receiving adequate help at school also cannot find it at home.

Rural Students

A second group of students that is underserved (but not usually put in the traditional definition) is students from areas defined as “rural,” where students might not have access to the same college access resources for students in more urban or suburban areas (NACAC 2006). Reaching these underserved students and giving them resources is particularly challenging because of lack of geographical approximation. For instance, while New York City has a plethora of college access nonprofits and programs for underserved youth in the area, a small town in the middle of Kansas will most likely not offer those same resources (or there at least will not be a variety of resources to choose from).

Virtual School/Homeschooled Students

A third group that is rarely thought of as traditionally “underserved” are students enrolled in virtual schools (Rendon 2006). These students are part of mass homeschooling programs, where there can be upwards of 2,000 students in a single online “class.” Depending on the program, there is little personal attention from teachers, and there is typically not college admissions counseling. While it may seem like these pupils have all the college admissions information they could ever need right at their fingertips, that does not mean that they know how to decipher that information and put it into practice without the help of a college counselor or at least a parental figure.

Students with Parents Who Did Not Complete College

A fourth group that is not always thought of as “underserved” are students whose parents attended some form of college but did not graduate with at least a Bachelor’s degree. Many students have parents who either did not complete their four-year degree or graduated with Associate’s degrees or vocational training. These students find themselves in the awkward place of not necessarily being the first generation to attend college, but they also do not have parents who have successfully completed a four-year degree.

Low-Income White Students

Because these students fall into the category of being racially privileged but socioeconomically disadvantaged, there is often a grey area as to whether those students need help. Throughout academic literature, there is a general theme that “low-income students” is synonymous for “low-income students of color,” which leaves out lower income white students entirely. Often, low-income white students are not able to qualify for special college access initiatives because of their race.

Students at Large Public Schools

The average American public high school has one college counselor for every 476-488 students, a number that has not changed much in recent years (NACAC 2006). This numbers does differ by state, with college counselors taking on a workload of anywhere from 225 to 951 students at any given time (NACAC 2006). Given that the average private school college counselor has a caseload of 40 to 100 students (NACAC 2006), there is a huge discrepancy in the amount of time a student might spend with a college counselor during his or her four years of high school, especially during junior and senior years.

There is additional strain put on guidance counselors as well: Public school counselors only dedicate 25% of their time to college counseling, whereas private school counselors spend 58% of their time on college counseling (Hawkins and Clinedinst 2006). Additionally, only 21% of public schools have an administrator whose sole job is college counseling, compared to private school statistics around 77% (Hawkins and Clinedinst 2006).

Students with No Parental Support

There is also an assumption within the education system (specifically within the public education system) that if a student has a parent (or parents) who went to college, that student must be receiving college access support at home, therefore alleviating some of the strain on college counselors. And while there is plenty of research that proves that the likelihood of a student going to college if his or her parents attended and/or graduated from college dramatically increases (PostSecondary Study 1996), there is not as much research (both quantitative and qualitative) examining the student experience. For example, did students end up at the colleges they were hoping to attend? Were parents supportive of these choices? How much did parents provide help when students were doing the more technical aspects of the college admissions process? The overall takeaway is that parental involvement in the college process far exceeds the simple fact that a student has parents who went to college, especially considering how much the system has shifted over the past 30 to 40 years.

What Can Be Done to Better Serve These “Invisible” Underserved Students?

Over time, several different education methods that have been implemented to try and solve issues regarding helping underserved students, but these resources are generally lacking, and almost all of them do not reach students who are considered the “invisible” underserved. It is important to break them down before moving on to other recommendation that I have personally witnessed from my time at The Prospect.

Traditional Means of Serving the Underserved

College Counseling Efforts

Starting back in the 1960s, modern-day college counseling in high schools was meant to be a way to disseminate important information to students weighing options for their futures, since many students did not go to college and were instead looking for vocational or job opportunities (McDonough 2005). However, since its inception, having guidance counselors serve as stewards of higher education has been greatly debated, as many public school officials feel that higher education application assistance has nothing to do with general counseling that students receive from these officials in high school (McDonough 2005).

The problem with college counseling in its current form is that because of the lack of meaningful time most students spend with a counselor and the lack of admissions-specific training that many of these counselors receive, students are not getting an adequate amount of help from someone who is not trained to give them answers, and college counselors feel swamped with questions that they cannot begin to answer. The worst part is, research shows that underserved students are the ones who want the college help the most, but they are the ones who usually do not get access to it or get misinformation (ACT 2012).

Higher Education Access Programs

There are a plethora of college access programs (usually nonprofits) trying to make higher education possible for students who might have no resources at school or home, like Breakthrough Collaborative, Questbridge, and the Gates Millennium scholarship. In theory, these nonprofits are using principles and research to fill in gaps where the public education system typically fails. For instance, many of these programs give students extra college counseling and tutoring help to put them on par with their more affluent peers, especially since studies show that students with more counseling have better grades, test scores, and college admissions outcomes (Avery 2009).

However, as I will explain in more detail below, there are several issues with the nonprofit model in its current form. First, who gets into these programs leaves out a wide range of underserved students. Unsurprisingly, these types of programs are generally interested in help first-generation, low-income, and/or minority students. Second, the training of mentors and tutors is questionable and many times uncontested. Lastly, there is always an economic component—where are these nonprofits getting their funding from, and do those funders have good intentions with their money, or are there certain conditions of that money that may be putting harm on the students in the program?

Online Resources

Nowadays, many students can access all sorts of information online to help them during the college admissions process. There are still issues with many of these resources: Many of them require money (or at least a credit card number, which a large number of students do not have), lots of students do not have regular access to a computer outside of school, and many of these resources are still incredibly confusing for students to use who might not have the cultural capital to understand college admissions jargon. This is where the problem is cyclical: A student might read something online, go to a college counselor for clarification, and the college counselor will not know how to answer the question. This leads to more googling, confusion, and unanswered questions.

Policy Recommendations Based on Research and Field Experience

Based on my experiences with The Prospect, I think there are several other solutions that need to be considered when helping underserved students who do not fall under the typically umbrella term feel prepared and supported during the college admissions process.

Make Sure Counseling Professionals Are Trained

One huge issue with many public school and higher education nonprofit college counselors is that often they do not have proper college admissions training to give them an understanding of the technical and also the more emotional parts of the process. For example, many nonprofits that work in college access usually use some form of the mentoring model (including the Bloomberg Philanthropies model explained in the introduction). These models typically call for “bright” college students at “elite” universities to help underserved students get into college. The problem is the assumed relationship between acceptance to a selective college and knowledge of the admissions process: Just because a student gets into an “elite” schools (like the Ivies or top liberal arts colleges) does not mean they understand the college admissions process and can help another student do the same. Conversely, just because a student does not go to an elite college does not mean that they have zero knowledge of how to help others get into college. In fact, on The Prospect’s team, one of our most knowledgeable college admissions writers is a student at Texas A&M University, a public institution.

This assumed correlation between the college a student attends and knowledge of the admissions process needs to stop (in most cases, I attribute it to laziness, a lack of proper teaching resources, or both), and instead, there needs to be a greater focus on making sure there is proper training for anyone working with underserved youth trying to help them get into college and succeed.

Furthermore, training should not stop at just teaching mentors or coaches the technical aspects of the college admissions process. From my work, I have found that the entire journey of applying to college is an incredibly emotional one for every student. Many mentors, because they do not have counseling degrees or training, do not know how to probably handle what happens in situations regarding a student’s emotional state during the admissions process, and this can greatly affect the college that student applies to and how he or she feels as a whole. For example, if a student in a mentoring program feels an extreme amount of pressure at home to get into college (as is usually the case for first-generation college applicants), this is important to make note of when working with that student, as it can greatly affect how the students acts during the college process.

Make Technical College Admissions Information Accessible and Easy to Comprehend

In many large public schools, the college counseling program tends to follow a certain pattern: A student’s parents help him or her pick which colleges to apply to and help with filling out the college applications, and the college counselor’s job is to push paper (sending transcripts and letters of recommendation to the colleges that the student applied to) to those colleges. Thus, much of the process requires parental or home-based support, which many students do not receive. Unless a student has access to someone at home who can help with all of these different parts of the admissions process (especially the technical aspects), that high schooler is bound to get overwhelmed and make mistakes along the way, or just simply “undermatch” out of frustration (for instance, applying to community colleges instead of four-year institutions because it’s less stressful and much simpler).

From my work with The Prospect, I have found that having information on the more technical aspects of the admissions process more available and readable (for example, how to fill out a Common App from scratch) frees up time for high school college counselors, parents, and students to focus on other parts of the process, like finding colleges that are a good fit and scholarships that can help students afford those schools. Unfortunately, the meta goal of simplifying the entire admissions process may be too lofty for now, but giving students tools to get through these aspects of the process will in fact make it easier. In other words, the actual application itself should not take the biggest chunk of time during the admissions process; figuring out which schools to apply to and how to afford them should be. How to fill out the Common App correctly should not be some huge secret that only higher income students have access to; it is a universal process that everyone should be able to get through.

Go Where Students Go

I am personally always shocked at how many high school guidance counselors stick to just giving out pamphlets or paper copies of resources to students who stop by their offices instead of posting resources to a blog or social media websites. Not only will more students be able to find and use their resources, but so will their parents and guardians who need to educate themselves on the process as well.

The great thing about the internet is that information can be accessed from many more places other than just a computer or laptop: Students use their phone, tablets, and other devices to find what they need, and this can make all the difference. It is no secret that students regardless of socioeconomic status spend a huge chunk of their time on the web (especially on social media), so harnessing that internet presence to do good can make a gigantic difference in the life outcomes of students everywhere. A student might not be able to take the time to cull through pages and pages of internet search results to learn about the admissions process, but they can click on links that a college counseling offices tweets for helpful information. The college admissions process is therefore coming to them, not the other way around.

Conclusion

Reflections on The Prospect

As I have looked more at my work with The Prospect through my observations over the past two years and this research, I have found that there is a lot we can do to ensure that we are better helping all students who are not getting college resources, both the traditionally undeserved and the invisible underserved.

First and foremost, we can write content that helps these more niche audience conquer the admissions process. For example, most traditional college admissions resources do not respond to any of the plights of students who do virtual homeschooling programs, and one huge issue that these students have is that they cannot find teachers to write meaningful recommendations for their college applications (since these virtual “classrooms” typically have upwards of 800-1,500 students). By hiring college writers who have gone through these issues to give advice on The Prospect, we are helping create a space that makes these students feel like they are getting that information when other places will not aid them.

Additionally, this research and reflection makes me want to take a step back during every part of the process to make sure we are being as inclusive as possible. For example, one big initiative we are taking on over the next year is creating a YouTube channel that gives college admissions advice that provides closed captioning and is multi-lingual, so that students and parents who speak different languages can follow along and learn about the admissions process. These steps may seem small, but they allow a greater number of people to get the help they need.

Big Picture Conclusions

The biggest issue with the current system of categorizing and helping certain underserved students and not others is that doing so tries to put a Band-Aid on symptoms of larger systemic issues that exist within society and affect the world of college access. Once again, this is not to say that that students who are traditionally underserved should not be helped; I am just pointing out that there are larger issues at stake that affect many more students, and all of these considerations should be weighed.

For example, instead of acknowledging large public high schools are generally leaving most of their students underserved when it comes to applying to college (largely in part due to the economic inequality in the country and who it affects the education system), schools tend to give all students the same treatment. Unless these teens are in special nonprofit or support programs that give them the guidance and help they need, they will not find it at their schools. Of course, the issue with this is that many of these programs only take certain types of underserved students (minority, low-income, and/or first generation students), meaning that many inadequately supported students are left out entirely because they do not fit these molds but still deserve to have a chance at higher education, leaving them to fend for themselves as they take on the admissions process.

Additionally, like many problems in education, there is not a panacea that will fix every problem with college access and how underserved students are able to go through the process. Not every solution will work for every student, and thus, there needs to be a plethora of solutions provided to underserved students regardless of their circumstances. No matter the path that students decide to take when going through the admissions process, there needs to be a certain level of empathy and understanding with these students who are trying to better their lives by going to college. The college admissions process can seem big and impersonal, and it certainly does not have to be.

With the number of students attending college after high school dropping by a significant 5% margin between 2009 and 2013 (Norris 2014), it is time to re-evaluate how students are getting the information they need to feel confident during the admissions process and make educated decisions as to where they attend college, which could be the difference between graduating from college and dropping out entirely.

The decision for change comes down to a single question: Does every student in America deserve the chance to go to college if he or she wants to attend? If the answer is yes, then action needs to be taken.

 

 

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