By eliminating early admission programs in 2006, Harvard and Princeton took an important step in making college admissions more equitable, but much more needs to be done in order to ensure low-income students are able to make an effective transition from high school to college. Before moving to Madison, I worked for three years as a college counselor at Eastside College Preparatory School, a school in East Palo Alto, Calif. Eastside serves low-income students aiming to become the first in their families to attend college. Like many high-schoolers across the country, these indefatigable students took challenging academic courses, participated in extracurricular activities, and completed three to four hours of homework each night. Unlike many of their peers, however, these students had no idea how to apply to college. No one in their families had gone to college. The students and their parents did not know the gauntlet of college admissions consisted of essay writing, teacher recommendations, and financial aid forms. During my first day on the job, one of the parents off-handedly asked me, “What’s a college counselor?”

Every student should have access to guidance throughout the college application process, but that ideal lies far from the current reality. In most public high schools one counselor serves 490 students. And this counselor’s main role is organizing a student’s schedule, not providing college application advice. Expensive private college counselors have filled this void for those students whose families can afford to pay for them, but low-income students working to become the first in their families to attend college get left behind.

I’ll never forget the first College Night I held at Eastside — the intent gazes of the students and their parents and the nervous energy in the room. As they sat there listening to me, soaking up the information on college selection, I realized I would need to guide them through each and every step of the process. Fortunately, the class size of 13 students was extremely small, so I was able to provide each student with individualized attention.

This level of attention is what it took in order to help these students navigate the process and break their family’s cycle of not earning a college degree.

While Harvard and Princeton have done an admirable thing by eliminating early admission, they and other institutions of higher learning could use their political clout and financial resources to motivate public high schools to ensure each and every student receives ample college guidance. In addition, colleges and universities should expand and enhance outreach programs like the PEOPLE program run here at the UW-Madison. PEOPLE exposes low-income, minority students to college and instills in them the belief they can start a new family tradition of earning a college degree.

Low-income students deserve the same quality of college admissions guidance as received by their more affluent peers. As for those students who sat in that College Night? Last spring they graduated from colleges like Columbia, Stanford, and Harvard.

Author: Matt Messinger