Top colleges to low income students: We want you

Top colleges to low income students: We want you

The leafy campuses of the country’s most selective colleges and universities have long drawn students who are intelligent—and wealthy. But if you think those are the only students who can manage to attend a top school these days, think again.

Many top tier institutions have hefty endowments that enable them to offer financial aid packages large enough to bring the cost of attendance in line with—or even lower than—many public universities. And at a number of selective colleges, the pressure is on to attract more high performing students of limited means.

“The bottom line is that students have more options,” said Jennifer Desjarlais, dean of admissions at Wellesley College.

(Read more: Who pays for college education? Not Mom and Dad)

The challenge now is for top colleges and universities to find ways to make all high-performing students aware of those opportunities.

Wellesley took a step in that direction in September when it launched My inTuition, a simple financial aid calculator on Wellesley’s website that lets students and families quickly see an estimate of the aid package they might receive. Because the calculator is so simple, it may not generate the best results if students’ financial situations are complex. But as a preliminary tool, it is significantly easier to use than the federal financial aid calculator.

Families visiting Wellesley over the summer were invited to try out My inTuition. Desjarlais said the reaction was extremely positive. “More modest income people said, ‘This is the first time I have a real idea of the cost to me,” she said. One student said she could actually use the calculator herself—a significant benefit if she or others are the first in their families to apply to college.

The efforts to expand outreach aren’t limited to the campuses themselves. A number of new apps are trying to demystify the college application process.

Several nonprofits are also working on placing high performing students of limited means in selective colleges. For example, QuestBridge offers a college match program aimed at placing top students at one of its 35 partner schools. Students who are accepted into the QuestBridge college matching programs receive full scholarships or generous aid packages if they are accepted at one of their chosen schools.

Edith Cricien used QuestBridge to land a spot at Amherst College. Cricien, a senior from Miami who is majoring in psychology, wanted to aim high after high school, but said her parents, an airport mechanic and an adult basic education teacher, were “not really able to help me—not because they didn’t want to, but because they didn’t know the system.” Her high school, with 650 students in a grade, had little more to offer.

Jeremiah Quinlan, admissions director at Yale, which is also reaching out to high achievers with limited resources, says that kind of environment affects high-achieving students’ desire to aim for top colleges. “Students make most college decisions on peers and community influence.”

Cricien was lucky, though, because she did have teachers who encouraged her to aim high. When she heard about QuestBridge, she applied to a high school program they had, and was assigned a telementor who happened to be from Amherst.

“I never knew about liberal arts colleges in high school,” she said. “Once I got paired with a telementor at Amherst, I learned about Amherst and liberal arts colleges generally.”

Cricien wound up applying to eight colleges and was accepted at her two top choices. She now works part time as an intern in the admissions office, helping with efforts to recruit low income or minority students.

“Amherst has been very generous,” she said. “Basically, Amherst has paid for pretty much all of my education.”

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