Houston Program Connects Low-Income Students With Top Colleges

Nov 7, 2013
Originally published on November 6, 2013 3:08 pm

Recent research shows that as many as 35,000 high-achieving, low-income students don’t apply to top colleges even though they have the grades to get in.

With high tuition costs at these elite schools, many students and their families shy away from applying — even though financial aid options can drastically reduce the costs, or even let students attend for free.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Laura Isensee of KUHF reports on a program in Houston that’s trying to change that.


Copyright 2013 WBUR-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.



It's HERE AND NOW. Harvard recently announced the start of a new campaign to encourage more low-income students to apply to elite schools, which have been criticized for not doing enough to recruit gifted students of little means. In a minute we'll hear from Harvard, but first, recent research shows that as many as 35,000 high-achieving, low-income students don't apply to top colleges even though they have the grades.

From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, KUHF's Laura Isensee reports on how Houston hopes to change that.

LAURA ISENSEE, BYLINE: Edgar Avina is a senior with a 4.0 GPA at Houston's DeBakey High School. He's at a workshop reading the fifth draft of his college essay to a classmate. It's about how he works cutting grass.

EDGAR AVINA: I cut, ignoring my parched throat, which begs for hydration. I cut away at my uneasiness, forgetting in this moment of toil my father's state of health. I cut, trying to dig my mother out of a mound of hospital bills.

ISENSEE: Edgar is 17 years old. His parents are immigrants from Mexico.

AVINA: I have fended for my family, working outside endlessly, cutting through the thickets of life's hardships. In the eyes of my father, I am now a man.

ISENSEE: At first Edgar wanted to attend a regional college like Texas Tech. But after a trip out East he changed his mind.

AVINA: Then I saw these beautiful, picturesque schools, and I realized, hey, I - maybe I should consider these. And then I just fell in love with Yale.

ISENSEE: Now Edgar's dream school is Yale, where he hopes to study engineering. Students like Edgar should be strong candidates for top colleges, but according to recent research, they aren't.

CHRIS AVERY: It's still the case your income and your background are strong predictors of where you end up in college.

ISENSEE: Chris Avery is a professor of public policy at Harvard University. He and a professor from Stanford University, Caroline Hoxby, looked at where students from affluent families and students from low-income families, students with the same academic credentials, apply to college. They found that low-income students are much less likely to apply to the country's most selective schools.

In fact, only eight percent of high-achieving, low-income students act like their wealthier peers and apply to selective schools, and so they're missing out.

AVERY: What's really at stake really is not necessarily the prestige of going to, like, you know, a fancy, well-known, selective college but the fact that selective colleges tend to support their students better, they tend to have more resources, and students are more likely to graduate.

ISENSEE: Avery says for these students, top colleges have so much financial aid to offer, they end up being cheaper than less competitive schools. But there's still a stereotype that top colleges are for rich kids, and Edgar says there's another, more personal reason students like him don't apply.

AVINA: So many kids in Hispanic families aren't allowed to go out of state because families want to keep them close. I told my mom I'm drawing a 500-mile circle, and I want to get out of it.

ISENSEE: Edgar is getting expert help with his college application from a new initiative in the Houston Independent School District. It's called Emerge. It's like private college consulting or Ivy League 101.

RICK CRUZ: We have students at Harvard, at Tufts, at Dartmouth, at Oberlin and MIT.

ISENSEE: That's Rick Cruz, an assistant school superintendent in Houston. He started the Emerge program three years ago as a volunteer project. Students get SAT prep. They visit college campuses. They get one-on-one mentoring and lots of help with that all-important personal essay. And they're encouraged to reach for top schools with generous financial aid, schools like Yale. Rosalinda Garcia is an assistant dean of students there.

ROSALINDA GARCIA: You know, it is competitive, and it is expensive, but it's not expensive for everyone. The schools - these schools, Yale has so many resources that they're able to provide full aid to many families. I think the message hasn't trickled down.

ISENSEE: For students like Edgar, going to a school like Yale isn't just about the prestige or getting an excellent education.

AVINA: Like my dream has always been, like, to retire my parents early so that they can live in a nice little house and then, like, you know, cuddle together on the porch swing or something. So, you know, - I mean, that's what Yale would represent, like an opportunity to advance, lift your whole family up, basically.

ISENSEE: If he makes it to Yale, or any university, Edgar will be the first in his family to attend college. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Laura Isensee in Houston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.