Like many promising students from modest backgrounds, Nolan Arkansas started his college search with a major barrier: He was unaware of all of his options and undervalued his own potential.
Arkansas grew up on a Cherokee reservation in North Carolina, earning mostly A’s in school and developing some fluency in his tribal language. He figured he was bound for a public university. Elite private schools seemed inconceivable.
But a growing movement of nonprofit talent hunters and advisers is seeking to raise the ambitions of disadvantaged students and connect them with premier colleges, attacking a widespread problem researchers call “undermatching.” Some are helping eye-catching numbers of students land at colleges with low admission rates.
This movement found Arkansas in his junior year in high school. He knew instantly that getting into a program called Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America was a pivot point. It was a door that would open more doors. Several months later, he was admitted to Yale University. He had made it from the reservation to the Ivy League.
Experts say for every Nolan Arkansas who is discovered and coached, there are many more low-income high achievers who still limit their search to the college down the road.
Most disadvantaged students with strong academic credentials “just don’t get why it is that they should be interested in applying to a selective college,” said Caroline Hoxby, a Stanford University economist. They take one look at the sticker price of private colleges, often exceeding $60,000 a year, and write them off. They don’t realize financial aid can put schools with small class sizes and high graduation rates within their reach. Instead, Hoxby said, these students focus on community colleges or others they see as accessible, inexpensive and convenient.
Hoxby and Harvard University public policy professor Christopher Avery found in a 2012 study that at least 25,000 low-income students a year, and probably 35,000, rank in the top 10 percent on SAT or ACT admission test scores and have at least an A-minus average. Most of them, Hoxby and Avery found, do not apply to any selective college — rendering them effectively invisible to admissions officers.
The Hoxby-Avery study rang alarms. It suggested selective colleges were overlooking legions of deserving students. That message resonated with critics who have long argued that the admission system is tilted in favor of wealthy applicants who have easy access to test preparation, college-essay consultants and campus tours with their parents. Many colleges also give “legacy” admission preferences to children of alumni, another factor that favors the well-off.
But in the past five years, prestigious schools have intensified recruiting in low-income communities and expanded financial aid. Some prominent schools have sought to boost the share of freshmen with enough financial need to qualify for federal Pell grants. Within the Ivy League, the share at Princeton University is 22 percent and at Harvard 17 percent. At less-selective public colleges, the segment routinely tops 40 percent.
To diversify further, the prestigious colleges want help. They can’t do it with “feeder” schools, public and private, that have supplied them for generations with students who are usually affluent. They must build new pipelines into communities long overlooked to find students from low-income backgrounds with high potential. “They’re looking to programs like ours to do some of that vetting,” said Steve Stein, chief executive of SCS Noonan Scholars, based in Boston and Los Angeles. It helps 100 to 150 students a year apply to selective colleges.
QuestBridge, one of the largest pipeline programs, matches hundreds of disadvantaged students a year with 40 highly ranked colleges and universities. Others include Posse Foundation, College Advising Corps, ScholarMatch, College Possible and more.
“When you think about the scale of the challenge, it’s going to take a collective effort,” said Bryden Sweeney-Taylor, who oversees a remote-advising initiative for Bloomberg Philanthropies called CollegePoint.
Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America, with backing from private donors, including Princeton, provides intensive mentoring to 100 scholars a year. All are from public high schools. Ninety percent come from families with income of less than $66,000 a year, and the average family income is about $36,000. Founded in 2003 and based in New York, the program recruits through road trips to rural towns, outreach and word-of-mouth from older scholars.
“We’re looking for a cohort of super-bright young people who have tremendous leadership potential,” executive director Beth Breger said. The scholars, she said, are diverse but were not necessarily exposed to the full range of possibilities of higher education. “You cannot dream what you cannot see.”
Georgetown University in Washington has enrolled 35 of these scholars over the years. Among them is Eriana James, 20, a sophomore majoring in African-American studies from the south suburbs of Chicago. “Where I’m from, a lot of teenagers my age do not think about such universities and colleges,” wrote the first-generation college student. “We feel as if we are not enough. Leadership Enterprise had a different narrative for me.”
But first, students must get into the program. It’s not easy. The program gets about 1,250 applicants a year. (Admission rate: 8 percent.) The entry forms resemble college applications.
But programs are showing inroads at some of the most selective universities. Twenty-nine of 50 Leadership Enterprise scholars who applied to enter Stanford University in fall 2017 were admitted, the program reports. That admission rate — 58 percent —contrasts with Stanford’s overall rate of 5 percent.
Leadership Enterprise said admission rates for its scholars last year were 35 percent at Harvard, 47 at Yale and 59 at Princeton. At all three schools, the overall admission rate is in the single digits.
“We’ve done well with them,” William Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of admissions and financial aid, said of the program. “When we read the applications, and we know they’ve been through Leadership Enterprise, we know they’ve been well taken care of.”
Sayra Alanís, 24, a Leadership Enterprise scholar who graduated in 2015 from Rice University, had doubts after she was admitted to the program. Her brother had to cajole her into boarding the plane from Houston to Newark to the scholars program that summer. “I had to run to the gate,” she said. “I almost missed my flight.”
She earned a bachelor’s degree with a double major in Hispanic studies and women, gender and sexuality. Now, settled in Brooklyn, she’s recruiting for Leadership Enterprise and paying it back.
“I constantly think about how different my life could have been,” Alanís said. “I wasn’t set up for success. And here I am, living my dream.”