College admissions changes helpful

 

 

By Martha Ravits
For The Register-Guard
Sept. 25, 2016

It can be difficult for teenagers and parents to weigh the prospect of bills that may top $240,000 for four years of college (with debt to follow) against the benefits of a career based on a college degree. But for students with what’s called “demonstrated financial need,” higher education costs can be very different from the advertised tuition — especially at four-year colleges and universities that offer scholarships based on both economic need and academic merit.

“Tuition discounting” is a common practice at many private liberal arts colleges. Because the federal government now mandates that colleges post financial-aid calculators on their websites, prospective applicants can preview what their actual costs might be. For students staying closer to home, community colleges, with lower tuition and fees, offer associate degrees that can be goals in themselves or stepping stones to a four-year institution.

The United States boasts more than 2,200 four-year colleges and universities, both public and private, that are the envy of the world. But as higher education costs have skyrocketed in recent decades, far exceeding inflation, the idea of choosing a college based on educational desires rather than on budget constraints often seems out of reach for students from lower- and middle-class families — this at a time when higher education serves as an important tool for overcoming economic inequality.

We Americans depend on education as a democratizing force, a means for students who work hard and study hard to climb the socio-economic ladder.

The reality is harsher: Seventy percent of students whose parents do not hold college degrees will not attend college. And when costs seem staggering, how can students from humble backgrounds even begin to evaluate the intangibles of higher education in mentoring, social networks and life-long fulfillment?

Efforts to promote equality in college admissions began in the 1960s with affirmative action programs based on race, and continue to be refined through successive U.S. Supreme Court rulings. Race-conscious admissions have been upheld, but quotas are not permitted. Colleges and university admissions offices have been forced to rethink ways of achieving a multiethnic, multicultural student body.

Diversity is now defined in broader terms: Colleges look for students of varied socio-economic status, encourage applications from students who would be the first generation of their family to attend college, consider those with disadvantaged high-school backgrounds, and also take into consideration applicants’ gender, geographic region, ethnic origins, sexual orientation, physical disabilities and religion — all factors used to reach “under-represented minorities” and draw them into the student mix.

We have a long way to go. The most recent data from Harvard, Yale and Stanford reveal that in 2014 a grand total of 34 Native American or Alaska natives enrolled as freshmen at those universities — sparse representation for minority students whose success in academia depends on a critical mass with mentoring by students like themselves.

At the University of Oregon, attracting and retaining Latino students has proved difficult, but last year the number of Hispanic, Latino or Chicano students reached 2,270 in a student body of 24,000.

To encourage applications from students of all backgrounds, more than 90 well-known public and private colleges and universities have banded together to launch The Coalition for Affordability, Access and Success. The group — from the Ivies and Virginia Tech on the East Coast to Pomona College and the University of Washington on the West Coast — seeks to level the playing field for all students by making the application process less daunting and by stressing community engagement along with intellectual attainment. Member colleges, many with tuition and living expenses of more than $60,000 per year, guarantee financial assistance that will enable deserving students to attend by covering students’ demonstrated financial need in full.

The coalition portal hopes to encourage students to start thinking about college in their early years of high school. It features links for exploring member colleges and a confidential “locker” where a student can store impressions of campuses, schoolwork and personal materials for use later in composing applications. Application fees are waived for students who qualify for free lunch at school, a pattern already in place at most campuses.

Spreading the word about this new gateway is in the initial stages. How the coalition application will differ from the Common Application now in use by more than 400 colleges, coalition members included, remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, the College Board, long criticized for middle-class bias on the SATs, has responded with new versions of these admission tests, in part to address the gaps between the scores of minority students and their white counterparts as well as the strong correlation between family income and test scores.

The new SAT, introduced last March, will be used by admissions offices for the first time this fall. That puts high-school seniors in the unsettling position of trying to gauge admissions standards at various campuses without information on average test scores until data on the new resting regime is available.

We tend to forget that these dreaded tests were originally designed for democratizing purposes. Harvard set up the SAT tests in 1934 to find qualified scholarship students (only white men at that time) from the Midwest who had the talent but not the money to pay for college. Institutions of higher education have continued to use test scores in awarding scholarships to students from all regions, high schools and socio-economic brackets.

Fair Test, an organization that challenges the role of testing in evaluating student potential, reports that for the coming year, 870 colleges and universities are “test optional” or “test flexible” — they will no longer require SATs or ACTs for admissions. The growing list of such colleges is available at fairtest.org.

Finally, the primary means of assessing a family’s eligibility for college financial aid is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (fafsa.edu.gov). Students from families with demonstrated financial need as calculated by the FAFSA are in line to receive grants and scholarships — gift money — and student loans as well as federal work-study jobs on campus.

This fall, for the first time, the FAFSA will be available online Oct. 1, months earlier than in the past, and will call for information about family income and assets based on last year’s tax records rather than estimates for the current year. Private colleges may require additional financial information on the CSS/Profile, a form available through the College Board website.

The college admissions process is always in flux, and it comes during the period of students’ lives when they themselves are undergoing tremendous intellectual and social change.

Does the student think he would thrive most at a large university or at a smaller, more serene liberal arts campus? Does she value the excitement of big-time sports or the reputation for excellence in the science, technology, engineering and math fields so popular now? Many extraneous and solid educational factors go into a student’s reason for choosing a college.

But students of every background should reach for their dreams by investigating the opportunities for admission and financial support at colleges continually striving to attract a student population as diverse as our nation itself.