THE BLOG
11/20/2015 02:06 pm ET Updated Nov 20, 2016

College Admissions Odds Are Stacked Against High Achieving Low-Income Students

For the vast majority of students applying to top schools, the odds of acceptance pivot based on how much money their parents make. The old adage that "if you're poor and smart, you can write your own ticket" is simply no longer true. In college admissions, money counts.

There's a web of college admissions policies and practices whose import is to trip up the low-income but talented student. The so-called legacy preference, which gives added weight to applications from sons and daughters of alumni, is essentially affirmative action for the wealthy student. And in highly selective colleges, even the athletic preference gives an admissions edge for athletes in sports that are dominated by the wealthy -- tennis, lacrosse, squash, crew and equestrian sport -- than for proletarian football and basketball.

The timeliest example of this is the early decision application process, a practice through which students can boost their odds of admission by as much as 30 percent by locking into a school if accepted. The catch? You need to be affluent enough to commit to a school without first seeing its financial aid offer and savvy enough to know that the early option exists in the first place.

If past years are any guide, then the tens of thousands of students expected to submit their early decision applications by November 1 will be overwhelmingly wealthy and privileged. In addition to the opportunity to remove oneself early from the admissions rat race, studies suggest these students will have a competitive advantage that is roughly equivalent to an extra 100 points on their SAT's. That research is being borne out at even the most selective and sought-after schools across the nation today: At Harvard, for example, last year's early admissions acceptance rate was 16.5 percent, nearly three times the school's overall rate of 5.3 percent.

The current socioeconomic imbalance in early admissions is more than just an affront to fairness -- it's a challenge that further exacerbates existing inequalities in higher education and, ultimately, our economy. What surprise that social mobility in the US is stagnating? With more and more colleges now making early decision a central part of their admissions practices, even the most accomplished low-income students will find it increasingly hard to compete for spots at tops schools. While problematic on many levels, this is perhaps most troubling because of the roadblocks it creates for high-achieving, low-income students -- young people who are already at high risk of languishing in schools that fail to meet their academic potential.

So what can be done to level the early admissions playing field for low-income students? First, we need to give them better tools for understanding their true financial aid options before they've even decided where to apply. Unlike early action, the early decision process is binding, meaning students must accept admissions offers if extended along with the corresponding financial aid package. Understandably, students who know they will rely on grants and scholarships are often reluctant to relinquish their ability to compare -- and potentially leverage -- competing financial aid offers. But give these students the information to compare their financial aid options ahead of time, and they'll be in a much better position to commit to one school for early decision.

Technology can help: One of the most talked about new tools at the National College Access Network conference last month was "Pell Abacus," a Pell grant-specific app offered by College Abacus, a free online website that calculates likely actual college costs. The federally-funded Pell grants can be used to offset tuition at any accredited college or university. After answering just one financial question ("do you qualify for free or reduced lunch?"), students can use it to reveal their individualized financial aid estimates across more than 5,000 colleges; the tool not only shows Pell estimates, but also estimates of institutional financial aid drawn in real time from school net price calculators. Paired with school-specific data from the Obama Administration's recently released College Scorecard, the tool provides a holistic picture of the different financial factors -- including Pell grants -- that low-income students should consider before accepting any admissions offer -- early decision or otherwise.

Innovative tools like Pell Abacus can help take some of the financial uncertainty out of the early decision process, but more work is needed to support low-income students as they navigate the college admissions process overall. The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation has, through its 15 year history of providing its prestigious scholarships to high-achieving, low income students, proven that its awardees can thrive and succeed at America's most selective institutions. We need to give others the same chance.