College for All: Levelling the Playing Field for Low-income Applicants

(This is a guest post by Luke Skurman, CEO of Niche. Luke holds bachelors and masters degrees from Carnegie Mellon University and is a member of its Board of Trustees, where he is the Vice Chairman of the Research Innovation and Entrepreneurship committee, and a member of both the Education Affairs and the Property & Facilities committees. Luke is Chairman of Ascender, a non-profit, 501 ©(3), focused on bolstering innovation and entrepreneurship in the Pittsburgh region.)

As the landscape of higher education is constantly evolving, access and affordability remain points that most institutions can improve on. To everyone’s detriment, tuition fees, textbook costs and living expenses continue to increase, while the availability for students from middle and low-income families shrink. Every student should have the opportunity to earn a degree and it’s in the hands of the universities to level the playing field for low-income applicants. 

We are seeing the flexibility of these higher learning institutions as they react and carry on through the tumultuous times we’re living in. They have the ability to adapt and provide students with alternate ways of succeeding. They’re in the process of figuring it out. 

What’s crucial to know is that by and large, colleges want diversity. They want their campuses filled with economic diversity along with racial diversity. Colleges recognize something special happens when a diverse set of backgrounds and viewpoints converge in an education setting. Colleges do not want to become a homogenized place. At a minimum – both sides want the same thing, low-income college applicants want to go to college and colleges want these same students on their campuses, so it’s about the next steps and actions that can be taken to achieve this for both sides.

Here are some basic steps colleges can take to level the playing field for low-income applicants:

Increase the number of transfer students they accept, particularly those transferring from a community college. Many colleges have students that don’t end up graduating and have space in the higher class levels. Colleges need to make an effort to recruit a greater number of transfer students and target lower income students with those spots. 

Take a broader stance on removing standardized testing from the college admissions process. We’re seeing this happen now with test cancellations and shifting application deadlines so we know for a fact that it’s possible for universities to change. There is a base correlation that students from families with more resources score higher than students from those that do not. Removing standardized test scores as an application requirement would decrease the ability for higher-income students to get a leg up and help lower income students be evaluated by their efforts in school alone and not by extraneous resources at their disposal. 

Change their stance on alumni legacy admissions. Students receive preferential treatment because of their family’s generational alumni and take spots from even more qualified, deserving students. This disintegrates chances for students looking to be the first college graduate in their family, and all but eliminates the chance for these students’ economic mobility. Johns Hopkins University is a great example that has recently done this, with President Ronald J. Daniels agreeing “the very existence of legacy preferences limits access for high-achieving low and middle-income students.”

Build a stronger, employment-focused curriculum, offering to connect students with employment opportunities throughout their enrollment. College students could learn on the job, become even more employable, and earn an income along the way, easing the burden caused by school expenses. Additionally, this program could facilitate these students finding a job after graduation as well, boosting their confidence and making their education an even safer investment.

Boost online offerings, eliminating the expenses for classrooms, resources and commuting. Prerequisite classes could be cheaper and more widely available, lowering the cost of a degree overall. Although there are merits to an ‘on-campus’ experience, a hybrid option creates an even better, more affordable experience. How higher education institutions balance the flexibility and affordability of online classes during this time could prove to be very important for the future.

The landscape of higher education is changing every day, creating the perfect opportunity to incorporate these changes permanently. The priority remains – every student should have the opportunity to earn a degree and steps must be taken now to level the playing field.

What do you think?

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