What Swarthmore Can Do to Recruit Low-Income Students
Swarthmore, like many selective colleges, often laments the lack of applications it receives from qualified low-income and first-generation students. We make loud statements about how important it is to have a diverse group of students on campus and how hard we’re working to accomplish this goal. At one point I asked an admissions officer why only ten to fifteen percent of students receive Pell Grants. Our endowment exceeds one million dollars for each student; the funds are available to put low-income students through the school. What is going on?
The admissions officer told me that the “top colleges” are all competing for a small number of exceptional, low-income students. These students often apply to a number of selective colleges, most of which really want them to matriculate. When a student, especially a low-income student, is admitted to Harvard, Yale, and Swarthmore, very rarely does she choose Swarthmore over the schools with more money and more brand recognition, the admissions officer argued.
In theory this made sense to me. We have a wildly unequal public education system in our country. Students from poor families often attend schools with the fewest resources. It’s difficult for a student to come out of those circumstances and achieve at a level that students with the most social, cultural, and economic capital find very difficult. I took the explanation the admissions officer gave me and decided that if we wanted better representation of low-income students at our college, that we would need to start reforming the K-12 system, not our admissions process.
But as I was doing research for an education class, I came across a groundbreaking piece of research out of Stanford University that flipped this trope on its head. In “The Missing One-Offs: The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low-Income Students,” scholars Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery argue that there are actually tens of thousands of highly-qualified, low-income students, most of whom will not even apply to any selective colleges and universities. These students already have the grades, the test scores, and the extracurricular activities to gain access to school like Harvard, Pomona, and MIT. This is a large group of low-income students for whom the top schools are not, in fact, competing.
While high-achieving, low-income students from dense metropolitan areas like New York City and Los Angeles often have access to resources like magnet schools, similar students in rural areas may be one of only a handful in their entire school district to achieve at such high levels. The rural students are unlikely to come into contact with another person who is intimately aware of the nuances of the college admissions process. They may not know what a “reach,” “match,” and “safety” school is. They may not know about some of the well-resourced colleges like Bates or Claremont McKenna. Finally, they may not be aware that they are exactly the kind of students these colleges are seeking out and are willing to fund via financial aid. Urban, low-income students are more likely to come into contact with someone who knows about selective college admissions — a peer, an admissions officer making a visit, or a teacher.
Hoxby and Avery found that colleges like Swarthmore were devoting their recruiting efforts and resources almost exclusively to the students from dense urban areas. In places like New York, an admissions officer can visit high schools and make contact with thousands of students over the course of a day or two. Similarly, brick-and-mortar college access programs like Let’s Get Ready, Posse Scholars, and Say Yes to Education operate exclusively in urban areas. Brilliant rural students lose out on access to important information about how to maximize their opportunities for higher education.
A Call to Action
Swarthmore has an obligation to explore novel recruiting strategies that go beyond traditional place-based initiatives like high school visits. Furthermore, we cannot rely on rural schools, like urban schools, to have the kinds of resources and programming available to cater to the needs of only one or two students each year who are qualified to attend highly selective colleges. As a college with a stated commitment to socioeconomic diversity and a surplus of financial resources, Swarthmore should be spearheading the development of new, perhaps virtual, recruitment efforts that enable low-income students to access outstanding higher education.