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Why Are Poor Kids Being Shut Out of Top Universities?

Our education system steers poor kids to lesser schools and rich kids to prestigious universities -- making it easier for the disadvantages of the past to carry over to the future.

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Ensuring that students and their families have access to the tools they need to be informed college consumers can help fix this problem. The availability of need-based financial aid for families across the socioeconomic spectrum, including middle- and even upper-middle-class families, must be better publicized. Furthermore, families should assess a college’s affordability based on its net price—the price paid after financial aid—rather than its sticker price, and the net price calculators now required on colleges’ websites can help them do so. Also, in weighing a college’s overall value families should look beyond cost and consider graduation and employment outcomes as well. … In addition, public schools should replace one-size-fits-all college counseling with quality, tailored advice based on students’ academic preparation. Finally, colleges should improve their outreach to less affluent students so that these students become familiar with—and feel more comfortable applying to—colleges that match their achievements.

Radford’s work and warning demands attention because our workforce increasingly depends upon a highly educated and skilled population. On the ladder toward success in employment, social contacts, and life opportunities, the contacts made and fostered on college campuses become more vital. College selection is a first, giant step toward leveling the playing field.

Yet our existing system that steers poor kids to lesser schools and rich kids to prestigious universities makes it easier for the disadvantages—and advantages—of the past to carry on to successive generations. As much as we don’t like to believe it, America’s stark class stratification begins at the schoolhouse door. It must not be allowed to matriculate further into the nation’s colleges and universities.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center's Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.