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Lost In Transition: College Knowledge and College Choice

By Frank LaNasa, YI Organizing Fellow

For most Millennials, the value of higher education has never been a question – it is a given.  In my case, I was quick to inherit my working-class parents’ dream of the security that comes with attending a good school and getting a college degree.  Yet after years of work and planning, I was shocked when my father tried to dissuade me from applying to my dream school and future alma mater, Harvard University.

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic/
Image courtesy of imagerymajestic/

While this remains a surprise to many of my East Coast college friends, a recent study has validated what I came to believe long ago: a huge proportion of our nation’s high-achieving, low-income students do not even apply to its most selective colleges.

This is true for a number of reasons.  But the main concern of my father, and probably far too many others, was the at times incorrect belief that selective colleges are far more expensive than the options low-income, high-achieving students tend to choose.

When I spoke of Harvard, my dad had visions of $45,000 yearly tuitions and a lifetime of debt for me, which seemed unattractive in comparison to free in-state tuition in Louisiana.  I was lucky, and stubborn, and searched through the college’s website until I happened to discover the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative (HFAI), a program which pledged to eliminate student loans in favor of grants for families with yearly incomes under $60,000.  Like many selective schools, Harvard’s endowment enables it to provide aid packages to low-income students that substantially reduce the sticker price you find on its website – a fact that most students, teachers, and administrators were still unaware of when I returned to Louisiana as an HFAI recruiter as a senior.  Certainly, not everyone needs to go to Harvard, but it is important for students to be aware of their options, especially when selective colleges have been shown to be especially effective at graduating low-income students.

While larger-scale solutions to this problem should be explored, there are a number of tools already available to students today that can be useful as they consider their college options:

  • The Obama administration recently released its College Scorecard, which provides students with individual colleges’ average net costs, student debt levels, and graduation rates, all in a standardized, easy to read format.  The administration also plans to add data on the employment rates and average wages of recent graduates.
  • In addition, the College Navigator allows students to dig deeper and compare schools across a number of features, including size, campus setting, and programs and majors.
  • For students looking for more individualized information on college costs, the Department of Education’s Net Price Calculator allows students to compare the estimated costs of colleges AFTER subtracting the amount in scholarships and grants they are likely to receive, aid a student does not have to pay back.
  • In addition, over 600 schools have adopted the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet, which presents students’ actual reward letters in a clear, standardized way.
  • The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has also developed an online tool that would let students to compare the information provided by the shopping sheets, allowing them to understand how their college choice will impact their payments down the road.

These are powerful tools that provide the type of information that research has shown to greatly increase the number of low-income students that apply and are admitted to selective colleges.  While these tools should certainly continue to be improved, many students are unaware that they exist.  To truly tap the potential of all of our nation’s students, we should make it a priority to deliver the information they need to make smart investments in their futures.