Standardization of college application process could increase low-income student applicant rate

By Simon Brown / Columnist

ACT, SAT, PLUS, FAFSA: At first encounter, an unfamiliar parent might confuse the acronym-laden college application process with a Dr. Seuss book. Unfortunately, it is not that simple, educational or enjoyable.

While the many stages of applying and financing might seem like a simple script instilled in our families’ financial plans and in our guidance counselors’ speeches, not all students enjoy those privileges.

The labyrinthine application process leads too many underrepresented students, most notably high-performing yet low-income students, astray. 

For students raised in a household expecting to prepare its children for college, the process begins early. For parents, it begins even earlier. By the time we reached sixth grade, some of our parents had begun making sure we were placed in the right math track to deposit us in those all-important trigonometry and AP calculus classes in time for application season. By ninth grade, they were encouraging us into as many extracurriculars as possible while our guidance counselors started asking what kind of school we might be interested in attending.

By eleventh grade, we could recite the U.S. News and World Report college rankings as we pondered which two colleges to send our AP test scores to. What is more, though this might seem a premature process for students, for parents, the financial planning begins before we ever even left the womb.  

Still, with all this preparation, the most arbitrarily complicated hoops come in the last two years of high school. Not only must we register with College Board to schedule an SAT, but any results-minded parent now knows that his or her child should register for the ACT as well. What parent would be so negligent as to allow his or her son to disregard the all-important science section of the latter?

It’s no wonder, given all these obscure strategies and conventions, that high-performing, low-income students consistently decline to apply to the most selective universities and instead opt for local community colleges, which make their applications more accessible and less esoteric. 

Many elite universities responded to the implicit socioeconomic discrimination of their application systems by touting their generous financial aid packages. Still, in order to read this system of financial aid, an applicant must first look past the $40,000 or even $50,000 sticker price, which attracts those parents associating cost with quality — just like a new car or cable-TV package. 

Once you understand the comparative advantage of the ACT over the SAT and the subtle language of university financial aid, all you need to do is consult enough “how to write winning application essay” guidebooks. It should come as no great surprise, then, that bookstores stock entire shelves of a fairly recent genre: how-to-get-into-good-colleges books, reaping untold profits for the Princeton Review, Kaplan, Barron’s and the College Board.

All of these subtle conventions of the college-application game might seem obvious to the student raised in a household learned in the language of the Common App, but it is foreign to many children of the nonuniversity-educated. Growing up in a household barely capable of speaking English, let alone capable of comprehending the detailed financial information of not only the FAFSA, but the more detailed CSS/Financial Aid Profile compiled by the most selective universities can be incredibly taxing. 

Moreover, if reading between the lines of financial aid and student expense information is difficult for most families, it is near impossible for students relying on a guidance counselor splitting his or her time between 1,200 students — an all-too-real ratio for the most under-resourced public schools.   

Ultimately, the provision of generous financial aid will not be enough to vindicate selective universities of their elitist and socioeconomically exclusive reputation — even if that reputation predates their aid policy. It has become standard practice now for Ivy League universities, sitting on endowments larger than the GDP of a small nation, to guarantee full-tuition funding for lower-income families. Harvard, for instance, requires no financial contribution whatsoever from families earning less than $65,000 per year.

Even with this robust financial aid system, the question remains: Why do high-achieving students from that income bracket comprise a relatively lower portion of applicants to that university and its equivalents? 

If universities are serious about opening their ivy-strewn gates to an incoming class representative of the national population, they must actively counter their elitist reputation by streamlining and simplifying the application process. Rather than complicating it by hiding financial aid beneath the sticker price or expecting three SAT subject tests on top of the standard SAT and ACT, universities should work together to standardize expectations and make explicit the realistic cost of attendance.

When an entire publishing industry can survive on direction manuals for navigating the college application process, it should come as no surprise that many students get lost. 

Write Simon at [email protected].