In Wake of Affirmative Action Victory, Minority and Low-Income Students Still Face Barriers to Higher Education

By Luis Arias
Associate Editor, Vol. 21
Executive Editor, Vol. 22

Minority and low-income students remain underrepresented at most of our nation’s universities. Although many institutional and societal problems contribute to the low minority and low-income student enrollment rates, one contributor is especially troubling. These students lack access to the tools they need to properly navigate the college application process. According to the Center for American Progress, minority and low-income students do not have access to social capital they need to effectively navigate the admissions process and to turn college aspirations into college enrollment. They do not receive any guidance from their schools; and they do not have the help they need at home from their families, who often do not have college experience or knowledge about the college application process.

A recent article published by the Texas Tribune highlights this problem. The article compares how students at two different high schools only ten miles apart in Dallas, Texas, have vastly different experiences with the college preparation process. Texas guarantees students in the top 10% of their senior class a spot in any public university in the state. The University of Texas at Austin (UT-Austin) is the only exception—a student needs to be in the top 7%. Theoretically, the top 7% rule should minimize the disparity between the number of students who enroll at UT-Austin from poor and rich schools. But as the article notes, of the nearly 25,000 seniors who attended Texas’ poorest high schools, only 313 enrolled at the UT-Austin in 2015. Of the same number of seniors from the richest schools, 1,421 students enrolled at UT-Austin.

Bryan Adams High School is a low-income high school, where during the 2015-16 academic school year 77% of the students were Hispanic and 15% of the students were African American. According to the Texas Tribune article, many of the students at Bryan Adams had no idea the percentage rule existed until their junior year when school administrators told them they were in the top 10%; and many of the students did not know what a grade-point average was until their junior year. A teacher at the school even said that she wishes her students could have iPads or computers so that they do not have to apply to college on their cellphones. Genesis Morales, a senior at Bryan Adams, for example, was number 8 in her class and hoped to attend college. Her parents immigrated from Mexico and did not graduate high school. Her only impression of college is from watching television shows. Although she would have been automatically accepted to UT-Austin, she did not apply. In the article, she says, “It’s people who have money, people who are, like, prodigies and stuff, [who] end up there. For me, I was never surrounded by those people—people who went to college.”

Highland Park High School is ten miles away in the Town of Highland Park, where the median household income is $114,680. At Highland Park, counselors do not spend much time persuading students to attend a four-year university but instead help the students find the perfect match. Students first meet with their counselors in eighth grade to begin mapping their goals for college admissions. Once the students enroll at the high school, they then can choose to take SAT and ACT classes over the summer.  Unlike Genesis Morales at Bryan Adams, a student at Highland Park applied to 10 schools, including her father’s alma maters, Harvard and Vanderbilt. And as the student waited to hear back from those schools, she began to worry and applied to two more schools.

The Center for American Progress says that applying to college is a difficult process, and that improving student’s academic qualifications does not always lead to increased college enrollment. Students, in addition to high academic scores, need proper guidance and support. Public schools around the country should thus prioritize educating minority and low-income students and their parents about the college application process, including how to apply for financial aid and scholarships. Additionally, schools and parents should work together to pressure their representatives to include more funding in bills, such as the recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act, for college readiness programs. Every high school around the the nation should have similar counselors to those at Highland Park High School helping high schools students plan their future, even if that means opting out of college and pursuing another career path.