Dreams are Made Possible With ScholarshipsJune 11, 2014
Sydney Nye was a straight-A student with an SAT score high enough to apply to any college in the country. When her senior year of high school in Wilmington, Del., started about nine months ago, she had dreams of becoming a chemical engineer.
But she did not spend much time dreaming about where she would go to college. The notion of attending anything other than a local college seemed too far-fetched. She knew her parents — a dental assistant and a hairdresser, neither of whom had attended college — would have a hard time paying the nearly $100 application fee to elite colleges, let alone the tuition.
Fortunately, Ms. Nye lives in the state that has arguably become the most aggressive at trying to ensure that its college-ready teenagers attend college.
Around the same time that she was turning her attention to college applications, Delaware’s governor, Jack Markell, announced a program called Getting to Zero. Its goal was to get all high-school seniors with an SAT score of at least a 1,500 (out of 2,400) on the SAT to enrol in college. In recent years, state data show, about 20 percent of such teenagers did not.
Sydney Nye is headed to Stanford in the fall, thanks in part to her own academic achievements, but also to the encouragement of counselors at her school and a waiver for the application fee.CreditNate Pesce for The New York Times
State officials started the program last fall by working with the College Board to mail informational packets to all 1,800 high-school seniors deemed college-ready. In the packets, low-income students received application fee waivers to eight colleges, and students with the best test scores were encouraged to apply to top colleges. High-school guidance counselors and state officials then followed up with students and their parents — through evening phone calls and in-person meetings — to make sure the thorny logistics of college applications didn’t deter them.
While it’s too early to judge the program fully, the early results are impressive. Every single one of those 1,800 college-ready high-school seniors applied to at least one college, and 98 percent are on track to enroll.
Ms. Nye is among them. She will be attending Stanford University, where the admissions rate — as she told me with a sheepish laugh, after I’d asked — was 5.07 percent this year. “Give or take a little bit,” she added.
Delaware’s efforts are part of a national wave of interest in getting more low-income students to graduate from college. The reasons are obvious: The wage gap between college graduates and everyone else has reached a record high, and yet recent research has found that many qualified low-income students do not earn a bachelor’s degree. In fact, the college-completion gap between low- and high-income students has grown sharply over the last 20 years.
Think for a moment about what that means: Many teenagers who overcome difficult childhoods or troubled high schools and excel as students nonetheless fail to finish college. Some never enroll, waylaid by bureaucracy, financial fears or low expectations. Others attend poorly funded colleges and end up dropping out — even as upper-middle-class students with less impressive records graduate from better-funded colleges.
Graduation at the Charter School of Wilmington. Delaware has made a strong commitment to encouraging college attendance.
These low-income, high-achieving students should be among society’s most inspiring success stories. Instead, too many end up struggling to escape low-wage work. It’s a recipe for rising inequality and stagnant social mobility, not to mention unfairness.
“There are a lot of high-potential kids — many low-income but not all — who could be successful in college but who never apply,” Mr. Markell says. “While I’m not one of these people who think a four-year college is for everybody, the numbers still pan out that if you can be successful in college you ought to take a pretty hard look at going.”
Delaware’s recent efforts to expand college access and completion began in 2009, connected to the federal Education Department’s Race to the Top program. As part of its bid to win stimulus money, Delaware began offering the SAT during school hours, to increase the number of students taking it. Today, nearly all high-school students in the state do so. You’d be surprised how often the mere need to take the SAT or ACT keeps promising teenagers from college.
More recently, Mr. Markell read about a new study by Caroline Hoxby of Stanford and Christopher Avery of Harvard, which found that most high-achieving, low-income students did not attend a selective college. That study led to Getting to Zero.
In effect, the program tries to turn applying to college into part of high school — which is consistent with the reality that most middle-class jobs require a college degree of some kind. In November of their senior year, Delaware students can use computer class to fill out applications. Guidance counselors keep tabs on how many college-ready students have actually applied — and where.
It was one of these efforts to keep tabs that changed Ms. Nye’s path.
Leslie Carlson, a guidance counselor at Mount Pleasant High School, asked Ms. Nye where she would go if money were no object. She replied that money was an object. Mrs. Carlson said: Yes, but what if it weren’t? Ms. Nye eventually named Stanford, before adding that the application fee of $90 was more than she could afford. The counselor then told her about the fee waivers she would soon receive.
This story is a reminder of how often factors that seem trivial to more affluent families can keep low-income students from college. Before that conversation, the only college to which Ms. Nye had applied was the Colorado School of Mines, because the application was free. Ultimately, Ms. Nye received a scholarship to Stanford that requires no payment from her parents and no loans for either her or her parents. Her contribution consists of $5,000 a year she is supposed to earn through a campus job.
It’s true that Delaware is small, with a far more manageable state bureaucracy than most states. But remember that, at least until a year ago, Delaware also suffered from the problem of allowing many of its best students to fall off the college track.
“The results in Delaware have shown what is possible through this work,” said David Coleman, president of the College Board, which administers the SAT and Advanced Placement exams. Mr. Coleman has said that expanding college opportunities is his top goal for the College Board.
The next question is how Delaware’s class of 2014 will fare once they arrive at college. The benefits of college, including higher pay and better health, flow largely to those who finish, not those who simply enroll.
Will students like Ms. Nye feel comfortable on an affluent campus like Stanford’s? Will students on more typical campuses graduate in large numbers? Will community-college students either learn an employable skill or transfer successfully to a four-year college? For those students who struggle, will Delaware find a way to help them — and ensure that gaudy enrollment statistics aren’t the main accomplishment of Getting to Zero?
Of course, you can’t finish college if you don’t begin, which means the program is off to a good start. Ms. Nye, who less than a year ago viewed Stanford as an impossible dream, expects to move into a dorm there on Sept. 16. “It worked out way better than I could have possibly anticipated,” she said.