It's been over a decade since Harvard began allowing students from lower income families to attend for free. Many other prestigious colleges have followed suit, eliminating all fees for students whose families make less than $65,000 per year.
Yet the number of low-income students at top educational institutions remains appallingly low. Only 3 percent of the students at the 146 most-selective U.S. colleges are from the lowest socioeconomic quartile. More than half of today's college graduates come from the richest 25 percent of American families. Just one in 10 comes from a family in the bottom income quartile.
Individual schools can't bridge this divide because most lower-resourced students don't apply to college in the first place. Only one in 10 applicants to selective colleges is a low-income student. Children from poor neighborhoods are 99 percent less likely to earn a bachelor's degree than those from wealthier areas.
Only by collaborating with each other can universities encourage and enable greater numbers of low-income students to apply to college.
The enrollment gap between lower-income students and their wealthier peers occurs for two main reasons.
Many students lack access to college counseling. In low-income high schools, the average counselor is responsible for over 1,000 students — more than double the national average. That's like tasking 100 people with advising a packed college football stadium.
Another barrier is affordability — or at least the perception that college tuition is out of reach.
Many students from low-income backgrounds don't apply to college because they assume they can't afford it. They experience sticker price shock and walk away without understanding that many colleges meet a student's full demonstrated financial need. Half of all lower-income students aren't aware of financial aid options available to them, such as federal Pell Grants. Some schools have even eliminated loans from their financial aid packages altogether, replacing them with grants.
Others don't realize that applying to college can be free. In 2014, eight in 10 students with family incomes under $20,000 failed to obtain a fee waiver for college applications.
Low-income students need access to information about the college process much sooner. Privileged students understand the college admission process early in their high school careers and prepare accordingly. But many low-income students don't begin thinking about what they'll do after high school until their senior year.
By then, they may have missed out on the chance to adequately consider college options, take college preparatory classes or to pursue extra-curricular activities that could strengthen their application.
Individual institutions already have early outreach programs. The University of California hosts enrichment programs for at-risk students, including academic seminars, SAT prep courses, and financial aid tutorials. And the University of Chicago has established an Admissions Academy that provides support and training to students and families, regardless of where they intend to apply.
These programs help hundreds of students each year. But that's not enough. To scale up, colleges must collaborate with each other.
Fortunately, some are starting to join forces. Nearly 100 colleges have joined the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success, which offers a comprehensive set of online tools to help students compile materials that they can eventually use to apply.
In partnership with Michelle Obama's Reach Higher initiative, the coalition is identifying 500 high schools across the country that lack adequate college-preparation resources. The coalition will send representatives from member colleges to each of these schools to lead workshops on everything from the value of higher education to the specifics of the college application process.
By teaming up, school representatives can broadly encourage students to go to college, period — not just to their own institutions.
A college education is as crucial to professional success as it has ever been. By coordinating outreach efforts and communicating with students early and often, colleges can help lower income students realize that a degree is within reach.
Annie Reznik is the first executive director of the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success. Previously, she was a college counselor and before that a college admissions officer at the University of Maryland. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.