When my family immigrated to the United States from Nepal in 2011, we had no place to live, no support system and no experience with the American educational system. We were starting from scratch.
Neither of my parents had a college degree. They worked countless hours, seven days a week, at minimum wage jobs to provide for our family. Even then, they couldn’t afford to send their children to college. So, I enrolled in a local community college, working several jobs to both pay for school and help support my family.
Like most community college students, I aspired to transfer and complete a four-year degree. I didn’t realize that only 14 percent of community college students ever achieve that goal. I never considered an Ivy League school an option, and I never imagined that an elite, private school could be more affordable than a state school.
I know I’m not the only one to have this assumption. Too often, low-income students view college as unaffordable and, therefore, unattainable. In fact, concerns about college costs discourage one in three high-achieving, low-income students from applying at all. First-generation college students, in particular, struggle to navigate well-documented challenges, exacerbated by the complexity of acronym-laden forms like the “FAFSA” and “CSS Profile.”
We may be confident in our academic abilities, we may know that we can do the work, but research shows that just one-fifth of high-achieving high school students from the bottom quartile of income distribution go on to attend selective institutions. Our fears about the cost mean that we rarely apply to the most competitive, private colleges. We miss out on the promise of social and economic mobility that elite institutions hold out — and often the chance to attend college at all.
Thankfully, I had professors and mentors along the way who brought clarity to a process that was otherwise opaque and scary. The professor who led my community college honors program insisted I stop worrying about what she called “sticker price.” “Going to college is like buying a plane ticket,” she explained. “No one pays the same price. It’s an illusion.”
Of course, I had never purchased a plane ticket. Price discrimination was an entirely foreign concept to me. And there’s no understating the difference that sort of inexperience has on the academic trajectory of low-income, first-generation college students. Without guidance from her and others, I might have chosen less effective and more costly postsecondary options.
But my professors encouraged me to think bigger. I applied to Cornell and received need-based aid. I won a Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship. And in the end, I paid zero percent of the “sticker price.”
Good educators know that while the distribution of talent is even, the allocation of opportunity is not. But unlocking the potential of high achieving, low-income students requires that colleges and universities take into account not just the real challenges, but also the perceived obstacles facing low-income, first-generation students. Their missions should dictate that they confront both hard realities and the illusions. We need support to understand the difference between seemingly obvious concepts like the difference between loans and grants. And our parents may need assurances that more affluent families take for granted, like the fact that grants are gifts that do not need to be repaid.
We also need institutions to implement policies that eliminate work study and loans before reducing institutional aid when students receive outside scholarships. Net price calculators should be easy to understand, like Wellesley College’s “My inTuition.” More colleges should follow the lead of Towson University and others that are now providing students with multi-year estimates so that students can better anticipate and navigate around tuition increases. Schools should adopt need-blind admission policies and prioritize need-based financial aid over so-called merit scholarships.
I graduated from Cornell with a Bachelor of Science degree in interdisciplinary studies, and in August, I will be starting medical school at the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Medicine. I am grateful for the counseling I received along the way, but I am tortured by the knowledge that others are not so fortunate.
Too many low-income students are still deceived by the optical illusion of college cost and lack the guidance that could help them see these barriers as surmountable.
Sagar Chapagain (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Cooke Scholar and currently a post-bac research fellow at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.