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Duke struggles to draw low-income applicants, paralleling national trends

As Duke prepares to release its admissions decisions next Wednesday, some in the higher education community are evaluating how accessible the college application process is to low-income students.

A recent study suggests that high-achieving low-income students are falling through the cracks during the college admissions process. The study—conducted by Caroline Hoxby, professor of economics at Stanford University, and Christopher Avery, professor of public policy and management at Harvard University—found that the vast majority of high-achieving students from low-income families do not apply to top colleges or universities. Although financial limitations stand as a significant deterrent for students, Alison Rabil, assistant vice provost and director of financial aid, said the greater problem results from the students’ inability to access information. Duke administrators say the University takes steps to reach out to potential applicants across income brackets, but the problem persists.

“We have to communicate [the financial aid system] in such a way that students who are interested in Duke will apply,” Rabil said. “You shouldn’t have to completely understand the system to take advantage of it—that would be impossible. You should be able to just apply to college.”

According to the study, 8 percent of high-achieving students from low-income families applied to the advised range of safety, target and reach colleges—based on academic achievement—as compared to 35 percent of high-achieving students from middle-income families and 64 percent of those in high-income families.

Additionally, 53 percent of low-income students did not apply to the schools that were academically fit for them, whereas only 34 percent of middle-income and 11 percent of high-income students did not.

Many of these high-achieving low-income students opt instead to attend community colleges or four-year colleges near home, according to the study.

The study defined low-income households as those making less than $41,472 each year and high-income as exceeding $120,776.

At Duke, 43 percent of students receive need-based aid, Rabil said. Students with family incomes less than $60,000 per year—of which she said there are a couple hundred—are considered high-need and have no family contribution.

Currently, many low-income students whose parents and friends did not attend college have limited knowledge about the resources available to them, Rabil said. She added that guidance counselors are often unaware of opportunities and discourage students from applying to selective institutions for financial reasons.

“If they’re not hearing information from parents or guidance counselors, and they’re not hearing from us because of limited admissions counselors, how do you get them the right message?” Rabil asked.

An overwhelming process

The Office of Undergraduate Admissions seeks to broaden its recruitment efforts to reach these high-achieving low-income students and encourage them to apply, Dean of Admissions Christoph Guttentag noted.

“Many low-income students attend under-resourced schools and often don’t have the web of resources that help make the selective college admissions process manageable,” Guttentag wrote in an email Monday.

The admissions office already uses secondary school data provided by the College Board to locate potentially competitive applicants of all income levels, Guttentag said.

Rabil said it is important for Duke to collaborate with an external body like the College Board to more effectively communicate financial aid opportunities to low-income potential applicants.

The University focuses most of its resources on programs that administrators say reach a wide audience, including 125 joint recruitment programs with peer institutions like Harvard, Stanford University, Georgetown University and the University of Pennsylvania, as well as dozens of Discover Duke evening programs. Admissions also partners with programs such as College Horizons, a nonprofit organization that supports Native Americans pursuing higher education, and the Knowledge is Power Program, a national network of public charter schools that prepares students in under served communities for college.

Guttentag noted Duke’s shift toward using social networking and the web to reach students who may be unable to attend college fairs or information sessions, but he added that low-income students may not have the resources to take full advantage of these methods.

Despite these efforts, Guttentag noted that one of the great challenges is reaching students in the most rural parts of the country.

High-achieving low-income students from rural areas are less likely to have been exposed to college admissions ambassadors than their peers in metropolitan areas, said Charles Clotfelter, Smith Reynolds professor of public policy. Universities’ applicant pools benefit more from targeting more densely populated regions that tend to produce more high-achieving students.

Additionally, being a first-generation college applicant may present challenges for low-income students, he noted.

“If you’re in a family that hasn’t had a lot of college experience, the whole process could seem pretty overwhelming,” Clotfelter said.

‘Minor miracles’

The challenge is not simply providing students with information about financial aid available at top colleges and universities but also making it believable, Rabil said.

“They could hear it and still not believe it,” she said. “You trust your parents, your guidance counselors, your teachers.”

Financial factors are among the greatest obstacles preventing low-income students from submitting applications, said Kristen Stephens, assistant professor of the practice in the Duke Program in Education. Some students may need to work full-time to help support their families, she noted, adding that there are extra costs beyond tuition—such as transportation and general living expenses—that increase the financial burden.

When researching colleges, most students look first at the tuition, Rabil said. “They see $60,000 as a price tag and they think no way,” she said in reference to Duke’s annual cost. “The [complicated financial aid system] blocks people from feeling like we’re accessible.”

Although Rabil noted the influence of cost in a student’s decision to apply, she said the financial aid office does not actively participate in applicant recruitment. The office instead focuses mainly on educating students who are already admitted or enrolled on the financial aid available to them.

But some students apply despite the obstacles. Rabil recounted a story of a student who dreamed of attending Duke, though her family could not afford the high tuition. When asked why she applied anyway, the student said, “I crossed my fingers and hoped there would be money out there.”

“It’s a minor miracle they make it here at all,” Rabil said.

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