Pitt joins coalition to reach low-income students

Pitt joins the list of universities to adopt the Coalition Application. Terry Tan | Staff Illustrator

For freshman Abigail Vipperman, applying to college at the end of high school was a rush — but not the good kind.

“The admissions process was very fast paced,” Vipperman, a biology major, said. “It felt like everything was thrown at me, which was especially stressful since this was a such major life step.”

To help ease the admissions process for students like Vipperman, Pitt has joined a new coalition of more than 80 universities and pledged to make its application process smoother, especially for underprivileged students.

In late September, Pitt joined the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success, a group of colleges and universities that collectively announced a plan on Sept. 28, to make the college application more efficient and available to more students.

The coalition’s online platform will launch in 2016 and provide high school students with free tools to prepare for their college applications. The coalition will also introduce a new application process, similar to the common application, that all members will accept.

According to Kate Ledger, director of Financial Aid at Pitt, the University will use the new application — alongside its existing application — and the coalition’s online tools to reach students from primarily low-income backgrounds.

The platform will launch in April 2016, and students can use it to apply to colleges starting summer 2016, according to Marc Harding, Pitt’s chief enrollment officer.

In the coalition’s toolbox are online portals that will allow students to interact with their teachers, counselors and officials from universities as well as a “college locker,” which will serve as a resumé students can update over time. The college locker will be similar to the Box interface that Pitt uses and will allow students to document their extracurriculars.

The collaborative platform allows students to share elements of their resumé with their teachers and mentors, according to Julie Peterson, spokesperson for the coalition. The platform will also allow students and counselors to communicate directly with schools in the coalition to make sure students are meeting all of the application requirements.

The coalition’s application tools are most helpful for students who don’t have access to expensive college prep programs and whose schools don’t provide extensive college application counseling, according to Harding.

“Many high schools cannot afford some of the college counseling tools currently available,” Harding said. “Many school systems have a high counselor-to-student ratio [making it difficult to provide one-on-one help to students].”

Lindsay Page, an assistant professor at Pitt who has researchs for the School of Education, co-published an October 2014 study, “A Review of the Role of College Applications on Students’ Postsecondary Outcomes,” that shaped the coalition’s mission.

The study found that, in 2004, only 61 percent of the graduating class applied to at least one college, and this rate was even lower among low-income and first-generation students.

Among those who applied, 31 percent submitted only one application, 25 percent submitted two, 17 percent submitted three, and 27 percent applied to four or more colleges.

“To do it well requires students and families to access a lot of information and get it organized,” Page said.

“The main application barriers are geographical, financial and informational deficits,” Page said.

The coalition will attempt to reduce these barriers by targeting low-income communities through schools and through community-based organizations that work to get students into college.

According to Harding, the goal of the online tools is to get students thinking about college earlier, so they are more in touch with the admissions process.

“The admissions process is a very transactional event,” Steve Orlando, a spokesperson for the coalition from the University of Florida, said. “By having students start collecting materials as freshmen, we get students into a college application mindset sooner and decrease the stress normally associated with a four-month process.”

The 84 member institutions include all of the Ivy League schools, as well as liberal arts universities, such as Haverford College and Williams College, and public and private research universities, such as Duke University and Penn State.

All schools involved in the coalition must have a graduation rate of 70 percent or higher. According to the Department of Education guidelines, Pitt’s graduation rate is 80 percent.

The coalition decided on this requirement because of a larger national debate about the value of a college education, according to Peterson.

Students enrolled in the member schools would have greater returns, as it is likely they’ll graduate, according to Peterson.

Private institutions must also provide sufficient financial aid to meet the full, demonstrated financial need of its students, and public universities must offer reduced in-state tuition for its residents and meet additional financial needs, according to Peterson.

Peterson said institutions can still join the coalition, which is overseeing the final stages of development and testing before the platform launches.

“The message we want to send to students is that college is within your reach, that it can be very affordable and that you can graduate,” Peterson said.

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