BY CHLOE JENSEN '20
Elite colleges are fundamentally not designed for low-income students, which makes the application process unnavigable without help from an elite college attendee. Although low-income students can often attend prestigious institutions at an affordable cost, the complex, secretive and elitist process of admissions can often keep them out of these schools.
Extracurriculars are also a huge factor in admissions, which lower-income students lack in comparison with their upper-middle class peers. But discovering that a school like Mount Holyoke even exists and then having the ability to put together a competitive application is often inaccessible for low-income students.
In order to explain this idea more clearly, I will use the example of the rural, public high school I graduated from last spring. Every year, our high school sends just 40 percent of its graduating class to college, half of whom enroll in our local community college. Of the other half, the vast majority of students will attend a four-year state institution nearby. And every year, less than 2 percent of the graduating class attends a private, out-of-state college.
This is not to say that attending a pub- lic university is not a great accomplishment. It certainly is. But for many of our students, attending an elite college is intangible — a dream they never watched anyone accomplish and a goal for which they have no mentor. In a rural, low-in- come community, attending a historic top-tier college in New England is unattainable.
When I was applying for colleges, I remember that my guidance counselor had next to no information about Mount Holyoke or other schools in the northeast. For her, it was impressive that I was even considering attending an out-of-state college. This meant that I had to do every bit of college research — the majors, the size, the financial aid packages, the type of school — all on my own.
For many low-income students, accomplishing such a task alone can be daunting; the elite college application process is a large, complex process that takes a lot of planning, preparation and advice in order to successfully execute. Although I was a low-income student, I was pushed to apply to and attend an elite college by my parents, my teachers and my mentors. My mother helped me with college application essays, family friends who attended stellar institutions gave me tips and tricks for interviews and applications and my teachers gave me special care and attention in writing letters of recommendation or advising an application piece to ensure I had the greatest chance possible of attending a school like Mount Holyoke. Without these people in my life, I would have not only entered the college process dazed and confused, but I also may never have entered it at all.
When I think about the academically bright low-income students who missed out on the special care and attention of mentors, I think of one of my good friends at home. Born and raised below or at the poverty line with parents whose highest level of education was a high school diploma, she was immediately born into a disadvantaged family. We were both raised in a rural area, where very few students attend a four-year institution after high school. She did not have counselors, teachers and parents pushing her to strive for the best grades.
In fact, many people assumed she could never have the means to attend a prestigious school and never pushed her to do so. For her, the model student was never someone who could receive a full ride at an Ivy League institution; in her mind, the most she could accomplish was a nursing degree from our local community college. And while a community college degree is certainly valuable, I believe that if my friend, who is just as bright as any of the friends I have met here, had the resources and mentors I did, she would be studying alongside me at a similar institution.
Despite the special attention and care I received, there were many students from wealthy backgrounds whose college application process was met with much less daze and confusion. These are the students whose parents have known about this process since the moment their child could speak and have been preparing them for the race to an elite education ever since. These are the kids who have devoted countless hours since childhood to their respective extracurriculars.
These are the students who have taken every Advanced Placement and honors course under the sun, with private tutors and extra lessons to ensure they performed their best. These are the stu- dents who attended summer enrichment programs at prestigious colleges and summer abroad programs, who volunteered in several continents. These are the students who could go to national competitions and win awards after hours and hours of private preparation. These are the students whose parents paid hundreds of dollars an hour for SAT tutoring and college counseling. And every year, these are the students against whom low-income students compete.
Still, I am incredibly lucky that I was afforded the opportunity to attend Mount Holyoke with impeccable financial assistance. The scholarships I received were able to exist because of the wealthy students who can pay for their education out of pocket. In many ways, Mount Holyoke and similar institutions do open their gates to low-income students with their hefty endowments. Yet I would be lying if I said these gates are completely accessible to low-income students.