• April 19, 2014

How to Give Low-Income Students the Chance They Deserve

While Washington policy makers continue to spend most of their time consumed by manufactured budget crises, serious threats to our nation's future competitiveness go unaddressed. One challenge that demands immediate attention is the gap in education quality based on a family's wealth—a factor in the nation's rising income inequality.

While this issue requires a long-term and multifaceted approach, we can take immediate steps to improve opportunities for thousands of low-income students who are not reaching their potential.

A recent study by the Stanford economist Caroline M. Hoxby and Christopher Avery, of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, found that academically qualified, low-income students are far less likely to apply to or attend the nation's most selective colleges than their higher-income counterparts are. Only 34 percent of high-achieving high-school seniors in the bottom quarter of family income went to one of the 238 most selective colleges, compared with 78 percent of students from the top quarter. Those who underestimate their qualifications graduate from college far less frequently and lose out on career opportunities—and we as a society lose out on the contributions they could make.

Recognizing the role a college education can play in lifting young people out of poverty, I am distressed that we have students from those backgrounds—many of whom would be first in their family to go to college—who have earned the chance to pursue a degree but don't realize it and, thus, never reach their full potential. Many times they don't even apply to college, because they think they can't afford it and they don't have anyone telling them it is possible.

The good news is that research shows we can change this trend simply by better informing these students. In Delaware last month we announced that the College Board would send information on college affordability and financial aid, as well as materials to help with choosing colleges, to all seniors whose high-school work demonstrates that they are ready for college.

Additionally, low-income students will receive application-fee waivers, which have traditionally been far too complicated to obtain. And our highest-achieving low-income students will find a letter signed by all of the Ivy League schools, Stanford, and MIT, congratulating them on their achievements, encouraging them to apply, and letting them know that many low- and moderate-income students attend those institutions at no cost.

Our effort has implications for federal education policy. Delaware has shown that programs like the Obama administration's Race to the Top competition can be the catalyst for rebuilding foundational educational systems and developing practices that help students prepare for and gain access to the postsecondary-education opportunities that best suit them.

For example, our Race to the Top grant has allowed us to invest in new data programs to better understand the status of all of our students, with the aim of reaching everyone with the resources that match their needs. In addition, we pay for every junior to take the SAT during the school day. Those test scores can be matched with other attributes, like low-income qualifications, to help us focus resources on our neediest students.

Our innovations, supported by Race to the Top, will also allow us to engage in follow-up efforts as part of our new college-access project, including reminder e-mails and postcards for our college-ready students. In addition, two-thirds of our high schools will hold College Application Month events in November, during which volunteers will offer one-on-one assistance with filling out college applications and financial-aid forms.

While it has cost about $25-million per year to get all of this up and running, we can sustain these efforts for a fraction of that cost. When Washington focuses on boosting the most promising state reforms with start-up money, we have the ability to create efforts like this, which can be maintained over the long run and are replicable across the country.

Our nation has a moral obligation, and an economic imperative, to provide every student with the opportunity to get the education he or she deserves. Low-income students are particularly vulnerable to missing out on such opportunities, but we can take an important step forward by giving them the resources they need to make the most of their abilities.

Jack Markell is serving his second term as governor of Delaware.

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