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Low-income, first-gen students navigate college app process

10 percent of first gen students report using paid test tutors, compared to 33 percent of non-first gen

Work hard in high school, get into your dream school — that was the journey for many Brown students. But in an admissions process that favors the wealthy, the path is not so straightforward for low-income and first-generation students.

A 2016 Herald poll found that while a third of students whose parents attended college used a paid professional testing tutor, only a tenth of students who identified as first-generation reported doing the same. Similarly, about half of first-generation students reported using preparation books while 71 percent of non-first-generation students did.

Resources used also varied by the amount of financial aid that a student received. Three-quarters of students receiving no aid used professional testing tutors while the same resource was used by only 1 percent of students on full aid. Similarly, only 6 percent of these students used preparation books, while 60 percent of those with no aid did.

These trends are a product of a lack of resources, said Viet Nguyen ’17, a first-generation college student and former president of the first-generation and low-income college student advocacy group 1vyG.

“For a lot of (first-generation) students, realizing you have to do test prep senior year — while other people have been preparing since freshman and sophomore year — puts you at a substantial disadvantage,” Nguyen said. “Not because you are not smart or academically capable, but because you didn’t have the time or the materials necessary to get there.”

“The achievement gap for underrepresented students has been consistent for decades,” said Farhad Asghar, senior director of College Board’s Access to Opportunity, an initiative aimed at developing tools and partnerships to make higher education more accessible to first-generation and low-income students. He defined four barriers faced by low-income students: “access to academic preparation, access to information about the process, access to individuals that can guide them through the process and … issues around its affordability.”

Kenneth Gonzalez, a researcher on the experience of low-income students in higher education at Achieving the Dream, a nonprofit educational reform organization, points to the role of parental resources. “Students who have parents who have gone to college have more financial resources … to support their kids to have the best possible admissions package.”

Meanwhile, first-generation students lack access to the same type of resources, and their parents are often unaware of the competitive nature of the college admissions process, Gonzalez said.

Data released by College Board about the class of 2013 aligns with Gonzalez’s point, showing strong correlations between income, parental education and SAT scores.

Jacob Binder ’18, whose parents both went to Brown, cited family support while he applied to college. “My parents were definitely very helpful as far as the application went. My mom is a teacher, so she looked over all of my college essays multiple times,” he said.

As a legacy student, Binder also utilized the Alumni College Advising Program, a college advising program exclusively for the University’s legacy students. Though the program mainly showed him options for schools other than Brown, it was still helpful, he said.

Comparatively, without the same resources as Binder, Nguyen received advice from his cousin and online resources when applying to college. But not everything found online is trustworthy

“I used the internet for everything. First-generation students often try to tap into pre-existing knowledge networks, like College Confidential, but there is a lot of misinformation on the web,” Nguyen said.

Colleges, nonprofit organizations and testing companies are taking steps to make the college admission process more accessible for first-generation and low-income students.

Even with a push to increase socioeconomic diversity at selective colleges, students from low-income backgrounds remain few and far between. Brown has more students from the top 1 percent of the income scale — coming from families that earn over $630,000 annually — than the bottom 60 percent, according to data collected by the New York Times.

Logan Powell, dean of admission, said that the Admission Office is “absolutely aware of the adversity that some students face in the application process.” He added that they take an applicant’s background into account when his office reviews applications.

This holistic perspective can be beneficial to first-generation and low-income students. “If you are working four jobs at fast-food chains, you don’t really have time to do the six extracurriculars that are expected of you,” Nguyen said. “So how do we change our perception of what we consider impressive in a way that is welcoming to low-income students?”

Some programs have also been created to help first-generation and low-income students, such as QuestBridge and the National College Access Network.

“I was lucky that there were programs around my school, specifically targeting low-income students to provide them with college access,” Nguyen said.

Testing companies are also looking at how to mitigate the disparity. College Board created a department with the purpose of making its tests more accessible. Through its partnership with online learning platform Khan Academy, College Board has worked to increase access to test prep content.

Additionally, College Board “redesigned the SAT … so it could be more consistent with what the Board of (Education) says students should know,” Asghar said. But he recognized that families from higher socioeconomic brackets will still be able to afford the test prep that will put them at a further advantage.

However, getting good standardized test scores and being admitted to a selective college is only the first hurdle. “First-generation and low income students continue to face myriad challenges once arriving to campus,” says Professor of Sociology Gregory Elliott, who was a first-generation college student himself.

With obstacles ranging from balancing a full-time job on top of a demanding curricula to feelings of exclusion and alienation among peers, “getting into college is the easy part. … The hard part is getting (first-generation and low-income students) to feel like they belong here,” Elliott said. 


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