23 March 2023

‘A National Admissions Office’ for Low-Income Strivers

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QuestBridge, a nonprofit organization, figured out how to convince thousands of high-achieving, low-income students that they really can attend a top college. College admissions officers attribute the organization’s success to the simplicity of its approach to students. It avoids mind-numbingly complex talk of financial-aid forms and formulas that scare away so many low-income families. QuestBridge instead gives students a simple message: If you get in, you can go.

The growth of QuestBridge has broader lessons for higher education — and for closing the yawning achievement gap between rich and poor teenagers. That gap is one of the biggest reasons that moving up the economic ladder is so hard in the United States today. But QuestBridge’s efforts are innovative enough to deserve their own attention. Yet the broader lessons of QuestBridge aren’t only about how to communicate with students. They’re also how our society spends the limited resource that is financial aid.

The group’s founders, Michael and Ana Rowena McCullough, are now turning their attention to the estimated $3 billion in outside scholarships that are awarded every year to high school seniors. The McCulloughs see this money as a wasted opportunity, saying it comes too late to affect whether and where students go to college. It doesn’t help the many high-achieving, low-income strivers who don’t apply to top colleges — and often don’t graduate from any college.

They plan to offer prizes in some cases to high school juniors, like a summer program or a free laptop, to persuade them to apply. To win the prize, the junior would need to fill out a detailed application, which could become the basis for his or her college application. The idea draws on social science research, which has shown that people often respond better to tangible, short-term incentives (a free laptop) than to complicated, longer-term ones (a college degree, which will improve your life and which you can afford).

QuestBridge has its roots in summer programs they started as Stanford students in the 1980s and 1990s. Eventually, the McCulloughs realized the growing applicant pool to their summer program consisted of exactly the students whom top colleges said they wanted to recruit. So the couple began approaching admissions officers with plans for a new program the colleges would help pay for. QuestBridge uses traditional databases, like those with SAT scores, as well as networks of high school teachers and others to recruit students. It has an early application deadline, in late September, and a long application form, designed to get students to tell the story of their lives.

Crucially, the program promises a scholarship not just for one year but for four. The winners of the scholarships go through a matching process. They attend their first choice among any of the 35 participating colleges that admit them. Hundreds of scholarship finalists who don’t win are admitted separately to the colleges, through a more typical admissions process, often with nearly full scholarships. The students form a support network for one another.

As much as QuestBridge has grown, it of course remains tiny relative to the population of college-ready, low-income teenagers. Only a small slice of them will attend colleges with the resources to offer full scholarships. That’s why the larger lessons of QuestBridge are so important.

What are they? One, the complexity of the financial-aid process is scaring students away from college. The Obama administration has taken steps to simplify it, but a full revamping would require help from Congress. Two, large amounts of well-meaning scholarship money is fairly ineffectual. It helps many students who would graduate from college regardless, rather than those with the skills to graduate who are at risk of not doing so. Three, not every problem created by inequality is fiendishly difficult to solve.

Click here to access the full article on The New York Times. 

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