May 3, 2017 by poverty2professional
College Decision Day refers to the national celebration created under former First Lady Michelle Obama, for incoming college freshmen to announce which campus they will attend in the fall. This year it’s on Friday, May 5th, although many colleges require students to submit their Statement of Intent to Register (SIR) by May 1st.
However, students from low-income backgrounds or students who will be the first in their families to attend college (first-generation) – two identities that frequently intersect – will often find their selection limited by several factors: geography, bureaucracy, and lack of financial literacy.
It’s not that students who are low-income or first-generation are any less talented or intelligent than their wealthier peers (in many cases, they’ve often had to be more resourceful), it’s simply that students from more advantaged backgrounds are better resourced and, therefore, are more informed.
First among obstacles that can influence college enrollment is geography. In an effort to stay connected to their family, often the only form of social support that first-gen/low-income students have, they will usually select a school that is close to home. If you’re in Southern California, you are fortunate to generally have several college campuses (and a diverse range of types) in close proximity to each other: several community colleges, multiple private schools of varying sizes (including the tightly knit Claremont Colleges and the larger, research-oriented University of Southern California) as well as the public California State Universities (including Los Angeles, Northridge, and Fullerton) and the main flagship public research institute, the University of California, Los Angeles (go Bruins!).
Staying close to home isn’t a bad thing, but it can cut down possible opportunities, missing majors or academic programs more aligned to a student’s interest, or even selection of a better school (we’ll talk about choosing community colleges over four-years in another article). Additionally, the closer to home students stay the more likely they will feel obliged to share home responsibilities (e.g. picking up siblings, taking care of elderly family members, etc.). These additional responsibilities often command time away from studies, which leads to a more difficult time matriculating through college. A word to students: There is nothing wrong with having a little space where you only focus on schoolwork.
Secondly, bureaucracy that governs how a campus communicates with students often stymies a would-be college student’s ability to successfully enroll or even secure campus housing. For many colleges, as soon as a student declares their SIR all communication is then moved to the student’s campus email. Therefore, the address that the student has been using for all their college applications, their financial applications, and — up until this point — college communication, is rendered null. Combined with the number of activities that pile on in the final stretch of senior year, this places a student with no mentor or immediate family member who as ever been to college at an extreme disadvantage. How will they find out about summer bridge program offers? How will they know that the university requires additional financial documentation? How will they know when orientation registration or housing deadlines are? The unfortunate reality is that some students won’t. This can leave a student who would have attended a four-year university with only community colleges as a first selection or delayed matriculation to a postsecondary institution all together.
Finally, lack of financial literacy can be a huge hurdle to making that final push to simply enroll in college. What do I mean by financial literacy? Understanding how much will come out of a student’s personal expenses not simply to cover tuition but also the associated costs of college (books, gas, living on or off campus). If you live off-campus, for instance, are you willing to sacrifice sleeping, studying, or networking for the time it takes to commute? Commit to schools you are at least 90% sure you have a financial balance on. Keep your loans to a minimum in the first year. Remember, you still have three more years (sometimes more) ahead of you to take on debt. Be very careful in how much you start out with.
Students will also need to decipher how much colleges are offering in the award letter and where it’s coming from. Colleges use words like “Stafford loan,” “Parent Plus,” and “Subsidized loan.” This is all money the student will have to pay back and sometimes the letter will list them right next to grants and scholarships (free money you don’t have to pay back). How to keep track of it all? Use this: the Award Letter Analyzer. This is a wonderful worksheet offered by an organization called uAspire. Print it out and write in the amounts for each of the areas that the college award letter lists. The PDF version has enough space for three colleges. This Excel document has three more sheets with it (and you can type in the lines!). All in all, it’s a clean, clear view of how much aid will be receive and which colleges will cost more out of pocket.
So, what should go into selecting a college?
A lot of internet articles will talk about that trendy buzzword “fit.” You should feel that the college is just right for you. This, of course, is a painfully vague term that can be skewed by a minor factor such as bad weather during a campus tour or an extra shiny pamphlet. You might as well take a dowsing rod with you and see if it determines your college is “a good fit.”
Things to really think about: What is your financial aid package? Who is in your corner/what are your hubs? What is the campus climate? Roughly in that order.
I put aid at the top of the list because I feel that this is the least understood area for many would-be college students. There are some students – those who do well in the traditional school environment and thrive in rigorous academia – who would do well to start at a four-year university and just bust their way through it (maybe even in only three years). But instead, they opt for a community college because they perceive the cost as being cheaper. If it takes you longer to graduate (which community colleges can), it’s not saving you money. On the flip-side, a free first year at an expensive institution might sound tantalizing, but there should definitely be consideration about how the successive years will be financed. Ideally, the student should have at least one renewable scholarship opportunity.
My second recommendation means understanding the resources that are available to you as a student. Not your parents or even other friends who might attend the campus but rather what staff and faculty might be accessible. For instance, are there opportunities for you to receive individualized counseling? Do the faculty work one-on-one with students? What on-campus societies (NOT looking at fraternities or sororities) are available to you for membership? For me, I attended a campus with 40,000 students on it. That’s a small city even before you add administration and faculty! But I was also accepted into the Alumni Scholars Club (an organization where all the student members have received scholarships and work together to complete community service hours) and the Academic Advancement Program, which directly provided support services for students from low-income and first-gen backgrounds. My big school suddenly got a whole lot smaller. I knew I would be taken care of or that there were people I could go to for help.
Lastly, climate. Not if the college has more snow days than average or if it’s year-round sunny. Rather, is it friendly? Do counselors and faculty seem to care about student interests? Are the higher ups (presidents and/or chancellors and deans) aware of the students’ needs? Also, is the campus diverse? Not only ethnically diverse but also in terms of income levels and generational levels of students. For instance, 40% of UCLA students are eligible for the Pell Grant (federal aid offered to low-income students). There was never any shame on campus for needing financial assistance or being thrifty. A campus with a longer history of affluent students (such as the Ivy League) may treat this differently or see it as normal to be able to splurge on expensive outings or pay high fraternity fees. Having a mixed population of student allows more opportunities for interaction, both for finding your niche and stepping comfortably outside of it.