Barriers to College

Barriers to College

Real & informational barriers, and an overly complex financial aid process!

Four Questions and Real vs. Informational Barriers to College

Every student needs support, and needs to be able to and needs to be able to answer these four questions about college. Some students answer each easily and breeze through the application process. For many others, however, answering these questions takes time, and creates uncertainty about what their post-high school plans.

This uncertainty can create informational barriers to applying and attending college that build on top of "real" barriers in college selectivity, affordability, and geography. On top of everything is a complex application and financial aid process that manages to confuse everyone.

Many students also come with personal barriers that limit their ability to plan for life after high school or navigate the real and informational barriers in the post-high school transition. School counselors have limited control over family influences, or the skills and academic preparation of their students. They can however, work on developing resiliency and grit, providing information, and motivating their students.

Finally, the mass information landscape around college has become overwhelming, with many contradictory opinions being promoted by a range of influencers: parents, friends, neighbors, counselors, teachers, coaches, the media, etc...

Teenagers are forced to navigate a very confusing process with a lot of contradictory advice about the necessity, cost, and purpose of college.

Overcoming The Barriers!

I. Informational Barriers

All families struggle with he informational barriers of America's higher education system, and higher-resourced peers, parents, & advisers implement several effective strategies in order to navigate the college application process.

Strategy 1: Safety - Target - Reach

Strategy 2: Apply to 5-10

Strategy 3: Match & Fit

The problem is that these strategies and the entire application process involves a lot of research (often parentally supported/driven), visits, time, money all in the effort to reduce uncertainty about where the student can get in, can afford, and wants to attend.

In addition, lower-income and first generation students need to implement two additional strategies for a successful college application process.

Strategy 4: Make sure that most colleges where student is applying to are affordable! Though most families worry about affordability, lower income students are severely limited by their income in which colleges they will realistically be able to attend.

Strategy 5: Disregard a lot of advice or information that you have heard that:

College isn’t for you

You need to know what you want to do or what you want to study before you apply to college!

College is too expensive

College isn’t worth it

II. Complex Application Process

  1. The first step of the application process is to make a college list-- deciding what colleges to apply to.

Common strategies include placing Safety, Target, and Reach colleges on that list, checking college affordability (see next section), researching the college, and finally visiting multiple colleges to see where one fits in best.

2. Then students need to put together their college applications.

This involves multiple steps-- remember the application is not complete until the college has received each part.





-Fee Waiver/App Fee

-Counselor Rec

-Teacher Rec

-Extracurricular List/Resume

3. How to Apply

Students can apply in one of several ways, depending on the college. Many colleges are part of the Common App or Coalition Application-- application system that allow students to send 1 application to multiple colleges.

Some states have their own State Application Systems for their public universities.

Students apply to the remaining college through each individual college website.

4. Understanding Deadlines

Colleges typically have several deadlines for students to apply to. It's usually worth it to apply as early as possible, but students can only apply to one college Early Decision or Restricted Early Action.

-Early Action

-Restricted Early Action

-Early Decision I

-Early Decision II

-Regular Decision

5. May 1- College Decision Day

Finally, May 1 is College Decision Day. This is the deadline for students to submit their deposits to the college that they have selected! After this students will still have to attend summer orientation, sign up for classes, choose housing & roommates, and pay the bill; but the decision has been made!

II. Complex Financial Aid Process

Now if that was the whole process, it would be challenging, but manageable. But students still need to navigate the full financial aid process as well. Applying to college in the U.S. is really 2 separate processes (admissions & financial aid) that come together in the spring.

  1. First, students and counselors need to figure out what colleges are affordable?

-FAFSA Forecaster & EFC Calculator can help calculate an estimated Expected Family Contribution (EFC). This number tells you how much what the government (and colleges) will think that students are able to pay for college.

-Net Price Calculators can also be good tools to help students predict college affordable. Each college is required to have one on its website, and the provide estimates of how much financial aid the student will receive and the net (total) cost that they will have to pay per year. A word of caution however, not all net price calculators are created equal-- some do a much better job than others in predicting cost.

2.Starting October 1st, students must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

It can be a confusing online application to fill out that requires submitting the right form, creating an FSA ID for both student & parent, and knowing some common tricky situations for unmarried/divorced parents.

-Make sure to help students submit the right year FAFSA! Students will use parental financial information from 2 years prior.

-2020-21 FAFSA will require 2019 tax information

-2019-2020 FAFSA will require 2018 tax information

-Which Parent?

-Signing FAFSA w/ non-citizen parents

3. Some students will also need to complete the College Board's CSS Profile

Students applying to certain, mainly highly selective private colleges will also need to complete the CSS Profile, a more complicated financial form.

-List of colleges requiring the CSS Profile

4. Financial Aid Verification

The most challenging part of the financial aid process is dealing with financial aid verification. This typically happens to low-income, Pell-eligible students, but it can happen to anyone. Colleges will request additional financial information from the student in order to "verify" the information that was submitted through the FAFSA. Unfortunately, students often don't check their emails or online portals and don't know that they have been verified. A sure sign is that they have not received a financial aid award letter.

5. Receiving & Comparing Financial Aid Award Letters

Each college's financial aid award letter looks different and is sent in a different way. Most post it on the online portal, while some continue to mail it, and others send it via email. The student needs to collect all the letters (which show up at different times after admission) and then compare them to figure out how much each college will cost them, and which is the best deal. More info here.

5. Financial Aid Appeals

Students who aren't satisfied with the financial aid they received at their top choice colleges, can contact the college financial aid office and ask for more money. The college will likely have the student write an explanation and provide any supporting documentation to document a change in financial circumstances. These are often successful, so it can be worth a shot. More info here.

6. Deciding on Loans

At the end of the day, the student makes their college choice and will decide if they want to take out loans to help pay for college and what amount to take out. Easy Access recommends taking no more than $5,500 in federal direct loans each year for most students. More info here.

III. The Real Barriers of College: Selectivity

Some colleges are more selective (harder to get in to for students) than others. There is not secret about this, and Easy Access has no fundamental problem with differential levels of selectivity among universities.

However, we do have a problem with the Minimum Test Scores that many state systems use to arbitrarily set a lower bar on who can be accepted to a four-year in-state public university. This bar is significant because those in-state public universities are the ones most likely to be affordable for motivated students with lower test scores. When NC sets a 17 ACT and 880 SAT as the minimum score for attendance to the UNC system, it's limiting college access to highly motivated, college ready students who happen to have a 15 or 16 on their ACT.

Some, may say, what's wrong with community college? Why is it so important to allow students to go to 4-year college?

First of all, it's a matter of principle. If the SAT and ACT poorly predict college success & are highly influenced by family socio-economic background, why should they be the college gatekeepers? Motivate, deserving students from rural or low-income backgrounds are less likely to score well on standardized tests and are thus penalized by not being able to attend college.

Community college is a great option for many students, but it shouldn't be the only option to students with over a 3.0 GPA. Graduation and transfer rates are generally lower at community colleges, partially because students have more distractions that they must deal with, and b/c community colleges lack the resources to provide the level of student services support offered by most 4-year colleges.

1.Distractions-- Community college students typically work, take care of family, and have to commute to college. They deal with more distractions compared to residential college students.

2.Graduation Rates & Resources-- Community colleges lack the same resources and level of student services offered by most 4-year colleges. They also have more online classes and utilize more adjunct faculty who work other jobs and may not be able to commit as much time to student support.

Easy Access classifies 73 universities as Most Selective and 143 as Highly Selective. 99% of media coverage and information about colleges is about these 200 or so universities. That's why people forget that most universities admit most students that apply, and there are over 1000 open access community colleges across the country.

III. The Real Barriers of College: Affordability

Despite having some of the most prestigious universities in the world, the unfortunate fact about the American higher education system is that most colleges are affordable for most students, even students who qualify academically.

Students have four affordability strategies that they can employ in order to find an affordable college or university.

  1. Apply to in-state public universities- Because public universities provide state financial aid and lower tuition for their in-state students, they are often (but not always) the most affordable college option. However, recent research (and our years of college advising experience) shows that many public colleges in many states are actually not affordable for lower-income students. Out-of-state public universities (with the exception of the highly selective Universities of Michigan, Virginia, and North Carolina) are typically not affordable for low-income students.

  2. Affordable private colleges- When in-state public universities aren't affordable, students can turn to affordable private colleges, those that meet more than 90% of financial need. However, most affordable private colleges are also highly selective, meaning they are only an option for the highest academically achieving students. In addition, many students want to stay relatively close to home for college, they may not be willing to travel hours to attend a college that is affordable.

  3. Commuting Options- When students lack affordable public or private college options, their last chance for an affordable 4-year education is to live at home and commute to college. Because college room & board costs between $10-15K per year, most colleges will end up being affordable if students chose to live at home (that's why its usually a good idea to include 1 safety college within commuting distance on the college list-- just in case).

  4. Community College- However, many rural students don't have any colleges within commuting distance, leaving community college as their only affordable college option. Not necessarily a bad choice to start out, but a sad state of affairs for a country that prides itself for having the "best" system of higher education in the world.

The interaction of affordability and selectivity is an open secret in college admissions. Only 34 private colleges in the entire country are financially & academically accessible to the majority of low-income students graduating from high school each year.

Private College Affordability Table: Because colleges typically include family ability to pay and $5,500 in federal govt loans within the need calculations, the financial gap listed in the table above left is money that the family would have to pay on top the amount they can contribute and on top of $5,500 in federal loans.

In addition, these are annual numbers, so a $4,000 gap for one year is actually a $16,000 gap over the course of a four-year bachelor's degree. This is in addition to an average of $25,000 in federal student loans that most low-income students will take out ($5,500 * 4 years).

III. The Real Barriers of College: Geography

One of the key strategies that students can use to make college affordable is to live at home and commute to school.

Because room & board typically costs between $10-15K per year, most private and public universities (even the stingy ones) will end up being affordable for most students (even low-income ones) if they live at home.

However, commuting is dependent on having a four-year university that a student can be accepted to within a 30 min commute. It is not an option for much of the rural United States.

In addition, commuter students have more distractions and benefit less from college services and the community of their peers.

Our Theory of Change

In our opinion, three things need to happen in America's higher education system to reach its ideals of access for all.

1. First, the information landscape needs to change to incorporate the information needed by lower-income and otherwise disadvantaged students.

2. Second, we need to simplify the application & financial aid processes so that students are able to successfully apply to college without outside assistance.

3. Finally, and most importantly, we need to tackle college affordability. If every college in the country met more than 90% of each family's financial need, we could solve many of the problems of college access for underserved students.

What does Easy Access plan to do about it?

1.First, we are tackling the information problem, by building a college search app specifically designed for lower-income students, and by creating a caseload management tool to help high school counselors track and help their students through the application process. We are also building informational websites for both students and counselors to provide accurate and thoughtful information targeted typically underserved students and communities.

2. Simplifying the application and financial aid process and tackling college affordability involve political processes that Easy Access will engage in through research and advocacy.

What you can do as a counselor?

  1. Know your state higher ed landscape regarding affordability & selectivity and be able to provide good information to all students.

  2. Help students understand the importance of building a balanced college list.

  3. Get to know student expected family contribution (EFC)’s early in the process. Without this number, it’s hard to advise students about college affordability!

  4. Help students through the process-- help them overcome the uncertainty that will show up at different times throughout the year. This requires organization, outreach, and a caseload management system.