Price of admission

As universities around the country attempt to build more diverse classes, barriers for entry still remain for low-income students.


Maddi Shinall

Will Conrad '19 describes the costs of the college admissions process and how it affects lower-income students.

As low-income students apply to college, at each step there seems to be another obstacle. When the first colleges in the United States were founded, they were mainly for the wealthy. Although today American colleges have made some strides through financial aid and application fee waivers, the application process still favors wealthier individuals from the start to the end.

Low-income students are at a disadvantage from the get-go. Standardized test fees are usually around $50 per session. While students can apply for fee waivers to take the SAT or ACT, these waivers only cover two sessions of each test, as per College Board and ACT’s respective policies. Many high-income students have the luxury of using one or two exam attempts as practice sessions, knowing their families can afford to pay for additional tests. Low-income students, on the other hand, have to deal with the pressures of having a finite amount of test dates.

A major problem is that fee waivers do not cover the cost of switching a test date. If a student who qualifies for a fee waiver becomes ill on their scheduled test date, they cannot reschedule without incurring fees that could be a hardship to their family, further limiting their performance on standardized tests.

Also, high-income families can afford study materials that low-income families cannot. Some of these materials, such as private tutoring sessions supplementary workbooks, third parties often provide; others, such as study books and practice tests, College Board and ACT sell. This forces many low-income students to take the test with comparatively less knowledge of the content on it.

There’s a proven correlation between family income and standardized test scores. After College Board’s data showed a gradual decline in scores as income decreases, including a nearly 400 (out of 1600) point gap on SAT performance between students whose families earn $200,000 or more and students whose families earn $20,000 or less, College Board attempted to redesign their test to avoid cultural biases. Unfortunately, the gap has persisted. ACT scores follow the same trend, with a gap of 4.1 points (out of 36) between high-income and low-income students.

After low-income students fight an uphill battle through standardized testing, they must contend with admissions practices such as early decision, legacy admissions and application fees.

To clarify, early decision admission plans are application processes many private colleges and universities offer in which applicants submit their applications earlier and pledge to go to that college if accepted in exchange for an earlier decision date and often a higher acceptance rate. At face value, it appears to be a mutually-beneficial program that connects students who truly want to attend a certain college to colleges that want committed students. However, the process becomes more questionable when considering that colleges require students to promise to attend despite not informing them on financial aid that they will receive prior to submitting their applications. For many low-income students, pledging to attend a college without knowing the cost is not feasible. While there are cost estimators available, there is still risk involved due to changing family income that these calculators may not account for.  Backing out of these agreements due to financial strain is possible, but time-consuming, so many low-income students avoid them altogether.

For many low-income students, pledging to attend a college without knowing the cost is not feasible.”

— Will Conrad

Legacy status is a privilege given to applicants whose family members have attended that particular university. Often, legacy status comes with a higher chance of admission. However, most low-income students cannot take advantage of legacy status because few members of their family have attended four-year institutions, considering the average salary for Americans without a college degree is $35,256. While many colleges claim that observing legacy status leads to more alumni donations, the process is undoubtedly providing another barrier between low-income students and prestigious universities.

Even after navigating through all previous obstacles, low-income students must face one final complication on the last page of the Common Application: the application fee. For many elite schools, these fees can range from $70-100. Although some schools offer fee waivers, students sometimes do not want to ask for them. The process of requesting a fee waiver can be embarrassing. Why would students want to admit their poverty? When Trinity College restructured their fee waiver program to automatically grant fee waivers to students who were the first in their families to attend college, the number of these students who were admitted increased by 50 percent. Removing the requirement for students to admit their poverty when applying can pay dividends.

To continue making our colleges and universities open to all students, we must dismantle the obstructions which keep low-income students out.”

— Will Conrad

To continue making our colleges and universities open to all students, we must dismantle the obstructions which keep low-income students out. This includes making standardized test prep materials and test sessions affordable, informing students of financial aid opportunities before early decision deadlines, restructuring legacy status benefits and making application fee waivers more accessible.