04/23/2013 04:23 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2013

College Decision Time: Preparing Low-Income Students for Higher Education

For many high school seniors, April is decision time -- college acceptance letters in hand, they will weigh their options. But for students from low-income families or in foster care, the question is how and even if they're going to go to college, not where.

The result is vast inequities in college achievement. Only 10 percent of youth from low-income families graduate from a four-year college, compared to more than 25 percent from middle-income families and more than 50 percent from high-income families. Between 3 and 11 percent of foster care alumni complete a bachelor's degree.

The barriers to college access start with lack of information. Earlier this year in DC Public Schools, all 11th grade students were provided a chance to take the SAT for free during a school day. That's helpful, but not helpful enough. In many middle-class communities, taking an SAT preparation course is standard practice, but many low-income students don't even know that such courses exist. Probably no one in their families -- or on their block -- has attended college, and few may have a high school diploma. They have no idea whether 1200 is a good score or not, let alone what colleges might be suitable for them if that's the score they get. They don't know that different opportunities will be available to them if they attend Princeton University instead of the University of Phoenix.

Students who overcome the information barrier face many material hurdles as well.

A mother's part-time income doesn't stretch far enough to afford internet access, making it difficult for a teen to research and apply to college. A 17-year-old whose SAT score will open the door to college may not receive recruitment information as he moves from one group home to a therapeutic foster home to a different group home.

And if somehow students overcome those obstacles to apply and get accepted, there are still challenges. Just getting to campus is daunting. One student I know initially turned down a full college scholarship because she didn't think she could raise the $200 bus fare to get to the campus. A parent supporting her family through a minimum wage job may not be able to give up a day's income to accompany her daughter to campus. More than one lawyer in my office has moved a client in or out of the dorm when no one else was available. Many students quickly learn that buying books online is a better deal than the campus bookstore, but if your family doesn't have a credit card, you don't have that option.

DC's young adults are not alone -- a recent study that received significant media attention found that high-achieving low-income students often fail to apply to the nation's best colleges because the students didn't know anyone who had attended these schools, and they were unfamiliar with financial aid possibilities. An excerpt from a new book shares an anecdote that echoes this finding.

To make April decision time for all our young people, we need to give them the necessary tools. True college preparation cannot be done in a single day of meeting with a guidance counselor, in a single semester of class, or even in a single year of high school. College preparation should start earlier and should address the material barriers -- students need to see the whole college puzzle, not just the pieces for their application. We wouldn't ask a student to learn algebra if she didn't know how to add. We can't expect students to be prepared to think about college before they understand what it entails.