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Top Grades in High School May Not Mean an Equal Chance at Success

by Jean Johnson

Thursday, March 21st, 2013

For low-income students—even those with top grades and high test scores—the chance to excel in higher education can be derailed from the get-go, before the ink is even dry on their high school diplomas. For these students, outshining your high school classmates still doesn’t mean you’ll end up at a top college, according to new research from Christopher Avery of Harvard and Caroline Hoxby of Stanford. That makes us wonder about the role high school guidance counselors play in helping low-income students apply to college and whether these students are getting the advice and support they deserve. Based on Public Agenda’s work in this area, it seems very likely the guidance system is coming up short.

According to the new study reported in the New York Times, only about a third of high-achieving high school seniors from low-income families enroll in "one of the country’s 238 most selective colleges." It’s not that these highly promising students aren’t admitted—most never even apply. In sharp contrast, more than three-quarters of high-achieving students from affluent families attend one of these top schools.

And these students would seem to be a college admission officer’s dream. The researchers focused on students with an A-minus average or higher who had scored among the top 10% on college admissions exams like the SAT or ACT.

Like most good research, the Avery-Hoxby study raises a challenging set of questions for educators and the public at large. Experts responding to the report mentioned lack of knowledge about financial aid and lack of role models as some reasons why these top-achieving students from poorer homes don’t attend selective colleges.

Public Agenda’s study, "Can I Get a Little Advice Here? How an Overstretched High School Guidance System Is Undermining Students' College Aspirations spells out some specific problems facing these (and other) students.

In that survey, conducted for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, about 6 in 10 young adults gave their high school counselors fair or poor ratings for giving them advice on which colleges might be right for them (67 percent); how to get financial aid (59 percent); and different careers they might pursue (62 percent). Asked to describe their experiences with their high school counselors, only 47 percent of the young adults said the counselor made an attempt to get to know them and treat them as an individual; 48 percent said they felt like they were “just another face in the crowd.”

As we point out, the counselors themselves may not be to blame. Although professional groups such as the American School Counselor Association recommend a student-counselor ratio of 250 to 1, the rate is far higher in many school districts. Nationally, the ratio is 470 to 1. In California, it is over 1,000 to 1, and this has only gone up in the few years since we released the study. Especially for students who will be the first in their family to attend college, the guidance counseling component could be key.

It’s not that college students can’t get a good education at many fine institutions around the country, but for many of us, the new study still raises troubling questions. If low-income youngsters don’t really have a reasonably fair shot at attending the country’s most selective and respected colleges, can we truly say we’re honoring our commitment to equal opportunity? Do we believe this is an acceptable situation, or do we believe it’s time to take meaningful steps to address it? We welcome your thoughts in the comments below.


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