If they’ve got the grades, low-income students can turn their struggles into an asset when applying to college

June 3, 2009

Turning struggles into scholarships
By Patrick McGee
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Sunday, May 30, 2004

High-achieving, low-income students are impressing elite colleges by writing about their adversity in college admission essays.

Caroline Smith’s mother helped her get into one of the best universities in the country. She did it by relapsing into drug use and virtually abandoning her daughter.

Determined not to end up like her mother, Smith threw herself into her studies. On Friday, she graduated a year early from Dunbar High School. This fall, she will attend Rice University on a $24,000 yearly scholarship.

She said she didn’t realize how prestigious Rice was until people looked at her with surprise when she said she applied there.

High-achieving, low-income students like Smith are increasingly being courted by selective universities, as officials try to make higher education more accessible. Often, these students have the brains, but not the network, to get into a top college. Smith, who has a 4.1 grade-point average and scored a 1240 on the SAT, said she wondered why a university would name itself after a food when she received information from Rice in the mail.

More than 80 percent of students from families earning more than $88,675 annually go to college, compared with less than 60 percent of those whose families earn less than $35,066, according to the College Board.

“A strong set of forces are coming into play that are saying to these schools that they have an obligation to widen access and take some chances,” said Larry Gladieux, a former College Board policy director who is now an independent education consultant.

Some say the sharpened focus on low-income students started when Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard University, announced in February that undergraduates from families earning less than $40,000 a year would not have to pay for their Harvard education.

During an April speech at the University of Virginia, William Bowen, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and former president of Princeton University, argued that elite universities should start favorably considering low-income students’ poverty in admissions the way they favorably consider minorities’ race and ethnicity.

Ann Wright, Rice’s vice president for enrollment, said she recently attended a conference of selective colleges, and most of the discussion was about new efforts to enroll low-income students.

“Representatives of different colleges were saying, ‘It looks like there’s another arms race, in this case for talented low-income students,’ ” she said.

Anthony Carnevale, a vice president of the Educational Testing Service, calls this an effort to reverse a shameful trend in which “the dumbest rich kids go to college more than the smartest poor kids do.”

Carnevale, who contributed to a new book, America’s Untapped Resource: Low-Income Students in Higher Education, said polling shows most Americans don’t support affirmative action, but they strongly support favorable consideration of people who work their way up from the bottom.

“In America, there is a tendency to celebrate people who beat the odds,” Carnevale said. “We respect people who’ve traveled some distance to become high achievers.”

Rice admissions officials learned about Smith’s struggles in her essay. The 16-year-old said she wrote about her experience because she remembered hearing that people should write about what they know best.

Wright and others in higher education said that some guidance counselors and parents encourage applicants to turn adversity into advantage by writing about how they overcame it in their admission essays.

Smith was 13 when her mother relapsed into drug use. The teen missed school as she was left to run the household, take care of her half-brother and lie about her mother’s whereabouts.

“I was still naive and I didn’t know how to be responsible for myself or a younger sibling,” she wrote. “… Getting a five-year-old to eat dry, over salted chicken and bread is a daunting task.”

Her mother came home sporadically during the two months of Smith’s “trial,” the essay says.

“I didn’t know where our next meal was coming from,” she wrote, “or when the landlord would finally check for the rent money that had been spent weeks before and was due that day. For a small portion of my life I did nothing but worry.”

Smith now lives with her grandmother, a bus driver. She doesn’t know where her mother is.

Texas’ flagship selective universities, the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University, have generous scholarship packages, and officials say they aim to increase diversity.

UT created a new tier of scholarships after a 1996 court ruling banned affirmative action in admissions in Texas. The ban was overturned by a June 2003 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

A&M President Robert Gates said his university does not consider race in admissions, but it has $8 million in scholarships for first-generation college students whose family income is below $40,000. The university awarded the scholarships to students at predominantly minority high schools.

Gates visited high schools to personally offer the scholarships and encourage the students to attend A&M.

A&M officials reported some gains Thursday, saying they admitted 206 African-Americans for this fall’s freshman class, 75 more than last year, and 792 Hispanics, 155 more than last year. Most of them are expected to enroll in the incoming freshman class of about 6,800 students.

Angel Brown, 18, who recently graduated seventh in her class at Skyline High School in Dallas, said she was impressed by Gates’ personally offering her a scholarship, but she’s going to Rice, which offered to pay all her tuition. She said that after visiting both schools, she believed that Rice would be a more comfortable place for her as an African-American.

In her essay, Brown wrote about focusing on her studies while her mother used drugs and her father was in prison.

Brenda Ramirez, 18, this year’s salutatorian at Diamond Hill High School in Fort Worth, is going to UT on a four-year scholarship worth $20,000. UT undergraduate tuition and fees will cost $6,786 for a Texas resident this coming year.

UT mailed Ramirez information, and she decided to apply only there. She was automatically admitted because of the state’s 10-percent rule, which guarantees admission to any state school for students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their class.

In her essay, Ramirez wrote about how her mother struggled to raise her and her younger brother after their parents divorced. Ramirez’s mother works at a fast-food restaurant.

The UT System tried to come up with a scheme like Harvard’s to pay tuition for students who are from families earning less than $40,000. But lawmakers from the cash-strapped 2003 legislative session wouldn’t go for it.

“Not only were they not interested, they were very cool to it,” said Larry Burt, UT’s financial aid director.

Carnevale said he’s glad to see elite universities trying to enroll more low-income students who deserve to be there, but he said this is just a start. There are still thousands of moderately accomplished, low-income students who deserve a chance at college but end up nowhere, he said.

“You’ve got to stand out or else nobody’s got any time for you,” Carnevale said. “There’s a very large number of working-class, low-income kids who could go to college that don’t.”

Ramirez said many of her friends are like that.

“They don’t think they can make it,” she said.

NOTE: The name of the first student in this piece has been changed. The student, now an adult, asked that her name be changed to protect her identity.