How low expectations force low-income students to miss out on college aid

High-achieving students at East Aurora High School say they were "undermatched" and missed out on generous financial aid packages from selective universities because they were not properly guided or encouraged to apply to them.

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Photo courtesy of Tomas Navarro

Tomas Navarro, 2013 valedictorian of East Aurora High School, graduated from the University of Illinois in Chicago in 2019.

In December 2015, Stanford University gave Erik Strand, the top-ranked student at East Aurora High School in Aurora, Ill., an early-decision acceptance letter. A month later, Strand remembers his counselor calling him into his office and saying he didn’t know if “people like him are meant for schools like Stanford.” The counselor advised Strand to postpone or decline the offer and go to the local community college, Strand said, because the counselor worried Strand might drown in the selective university’s rigorous coursework because East had not prepared him well enough. The counselor could not be reached for comment.

“It was definitely a ‘bursting the bubble’ kind of moment,” said Strand. “I had already been told countless times by countless people that going to Stanford is impossible and when you go to East, nobody succeeds.”

Despite the discouragement, Strand decided to take the risk. Now a junior at Stanford, he is majoring in urban studies and minoring in education and is doing well academically, maintaining a GPA of 3.8. With a financial aid package requiring him to contribute around $3,000 a year and a part-time job as a residence assistant, Strand plans to graduate in 2020 with zero debt.

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Among high-achieving students at East and high schools like it, Strand is an exception: he applied to a highly selective university, and remained determined to go there despite discouragement from a counselor. Many other students who excel at under-funded public high schools like East don’t even apply to selective colleges and universities because school staff encourage them to aim lower. In foregoing such institutions, students actually miss out on financial aid that they might well have received, especially given their lower-income or minority status.

Recently, light has been shed on the lengths to which wealthy parents will go to get their students into prestigious institutions. The Varsity Blues federal investigation uncovered parents allegedly committing fraud and bribery to get their children into college, while ProPublica Illinois revealed well-off parents officially relinquishing guardianship of their kids so they can qualify for more financial aid. Many lower-income, high-achieving students at schools like East, by contrast, forego prestigious admissions, scholarships and financial aid, never even seeking these things because they are not encouraged to do so.

The phenomenon of top students from low-income families going to average or below-average schools is called “undermatching,” and everyone involved misses out on opportunities. Elite universities generally want to increase the economic and racial diversity of their student body, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. But students don’t take advantage of the opportunities available to them, because of a lack of encouragement and support from high school counselors, the need or desire to stay close to home and the lack of alumni networks that could help them feel more comfortable transitioning to more selective schools farther away.

While the number of students of color and low-income students attending college has increased nationwide, many students from schools like East go to public two-year colleges and lower-ranking private for-profit colleges and universities, rather than prominent nonprofit and state schools, according to the Pew Research Center. Data from the center shows that between the 1995-96 and 2015-16 school years, enrollment for this group of students in public two-year colleges grew 9% and enrollment in private for-profit universities grew 17%. Meanwhile, public four-year colleges saw enrollment grow 7%and private nonprofit four-year colleges only 1%, during that period.

Looking at the community

East Aurora High School lies in East Aurora School District 131, where 87% of the population is Latinx and 72% is low-income. A family of four making $71,300 a year in the Chicago-Joliet-Naperville, area is considered low-income, and the underfunded school district is considered “underperforming,” with a graduation rate of 70%, according to its Illinois Report Card. The “East Side,” as community members call it, gets a bad reputation of being associated with crime, drugs and teen pregnancies.

“Students are trained to give up since they are little,” said Guillermo Pedroni, a Spanish teacher at East. He said starting in elementary school, new teachers come into the district with expectations based on the color, race and socioeconomic status of the students. Pedroni said that because of low expectations, the school does not challenge these students enough.

“I like to pass the time thinking how I can help them have a greater understanding so that when they leave to another place they can compete [with others] and don’t end up like second-class [citizens],” Pedroni said in Spanish.

David King, a former East Aurora High School counselor who now directs counseling and advising at Geneva Community High School, said students at East often babysit siblings or work part-time jobs, responsibilities that reduce the amount of the time they can spend on college applications. Some work as sales associates, others as food service employees. “East kids have real-world type issues,” said King.

Many of these students have immigrant parents who never went to college and work low-paying jobs. An estimated 8.5% of the population in the school’s ZIP code has a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to 2017 Census data. With parents who don’t know how to navigate the American educational system, students are often left on their own and depend on the school to guide them. Some might be the first of their family to graduate from high school, and don’t know where to begin in the college application process.

In 2018, only 51% of East students enrolled in college immediately after graduating and of those, 27% went to two-year institutions and 24%t went to four-year institutions, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. Nationwide in 2018, a projected 30.1% of students went to two-year institutions and 69.9% went to four-years institutions, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Carolina Morales was the second-ranking student, or salutatorian, of her 2009 class, but still felt lost in the college application process. College “felt like a topic I wanted to avoid,” said Morales, who now works as an assistant at a law firm. “It made me really nervous, anxious and I think that came with the fact that it was another world that I didn’t fully comprehend.”

Morales said she thought about applying to Ivy League schools but felt they were out of her reach. Instead she looked at Ohio State, Illinois State University and the University of Illinois. She wanted to go somewhere with a criminal justice program, but her main priority was money. Morales ended up going to Purdue Calumet in Hammond, Ind., now known as Purdue Northwest, because recruiters came to the high school and offered her a full-ride scholarship, allowing her to graduate in 2013 debt-free.

Andrew Rathje, counselor and career specialist at East Aurora High School, advises first generation students that “it’s okay to be frustrated, it’s okay to be scared and it’s okay to ask questions” about the college application process.

It’s all about the money

High-achieving students at East are often left on their own to figure out the finances of their college education. “We try to teach them to advocate for themselves and step out of their comfort zone,” said Andrew Rathje, counselor and career specialist at East. He said they present students with scholarship opportunities and encourage them to explore the websites of the colleges they’re interested in.

But many students found the process difficult and reported looking at local schools because they knew former students who went there, or they considered other schools with some sort of recognition in the community.

“There wasn’t a lot of encouragement to make students push themselves beyond what seemed possible, and so most of the rhetoric around college was to apply to local schools and community college,” Strand said.

Some students had difficulty obtaining financial aid because their families were on the edge of school income brackets. For example, Tomas Navarro graduated as valedictorian of his 2013 class at East, but he didn’t look at any Ivy Leagues universities, since he worried about not receiving enough financial aid. Navarro’s father works in a landscaping company and his mother works for a cleaning company, earning around $60,000 a year together. This amount was enough to disqualify Navarro from generous financial aid, but not enough to pay for college out of pocket. Feeling limited in his options, Navarro only applied to in-state schools, going through the college application process on his own without much guidance from his school. After starting at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he transferred to Waubonsee Community College and graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2019. Navarro accumulated $23,000 in loans and paid $28,000 out of pocket, contributing a total of $51,000 towards his college education.

Yet selective schools are often more flexible with their financial aid. Stanford University has a financial-aid policy of expecting zero contributions from parents with an income below $65,000. It’s possible if Navarro had applied to a more selective school and gotten in, he may have received more financial aid.

Marlene Martinez, valedictorian of her class of 2015 at East, graduated from Brown University in 2019 with zero debt. She said it was cheaper for her to go to an Ivy League school than to a state school. “I didn’t realize applying to the most selective schools would give you the most money, even though they cost the most,” said Martinez. She thinks the sticker price deters people from applying to high-ranking institutions.

Going to selective colleges also pays off in the future. “Scholars have found that such institutions increase degree completion rates, labor market earnings, and civic participation among minority and low-SES students,” says a report from the American Sociological Association. So when high school counselors don’t help students take advantage of the higher education opportunities available to them, the oversight could have far-reaching ramifications.

Marlene Martinez, 2015 valedictorian of East Aurora High School, graduated from Brown University in 2019 and has applied to several medical schools.

Priority: Graduation

At least a dozen students interviewed for this story said their counselors only begin speaking about college during junior or senior year of high school. Some call the meetings “shallow,” others “bureaucratic.” Many felt the meetings were not tailored to their individual interests and needs. “I don’t think I was ever asked what do you like to do,” said Angel Chavez, valedictorian of his class of 2014 and 2018 graduate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The school district did not respond to requests for comment on these claims.

Navarro said counselors emphasize certain career options, like engineering and nursing, and don’t explore all the subjects students could study. “I felt pretty stupid for not having really considered a hobby as something I could study in college,” Navarro said. He originally went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to study engineering but realized it wasn’t what he wanted to do. It wasn’t until he was in college that he learned he could study kinesiology, the study of body movement. Instead of encouraging students to explore their passions and talents, counselors guided students toward careers “they felt were realistic,” said Navarro.

With a 70%t student graduation rate, both students and staff realize the priority at East is getting students to graduate. Wealthier nearby communities have much higher graduation rates –like Neuqua Valley High School at 98%, according to the Illinois Report Card,.

The counselor dilemma 

Only 13 counselors work with East’s 3,900 students, and only Andrew Rathje focuses solely on post-secondary education. The American School Counselor Association recommends a counselor-to-student ratio of 250-to-1. East has a ratio of 300-to-1, and also struggles with high turnover. King said East Aurora is seen as “a stepping school,” with many new teachers and counselors coming to get professional experience for two to three years, then leaving.

At East, the median salary is $59,698, according to the Illinois Report Card. King said he loved working there but left because of the pay and the inability to become a counselor administrator, a position that doesn’t exist at East. “I didn’t know what I was expecting when I got in there and by the time I left, it was really hard to leave,” King said. Now he works as the Director of Counseling and Advising at Geneva Community High School.

Students notice when teachers and staff come and go. In the past six years, East has gone through five different principals, according to the Illinois Report Card. Those who had troublesome experiences with counselors pointed to them being new to the school, and lamented that counselors gave general suggestions about college rather than listening to students’ goals and helping them achieve them. The school district also did not respond to requests for comment on the turnover.

Martinez applied to about 14 schools, including Brown and Aurora University. During their first meeting together, her counselor insisted she apply to Waubonsee Community College, Martinez said. Martinez told her counselor she wasn’t going to apply because even if she didn’t get into Brown or Yale, she knew AU would take her. Her counselor kept insisting she apply, Martinez said.

King said it can be intimidating for outsiders to come to a school where English is the second language and where America’s minority is the majority. Even though 87.8% of the student body at East is Latinx, 76.3% of the teachers are white, according to the school’s Illinois Report Card.

A counselors’ success depends how they approach students, King emphasized. “You’re not a dream killer. You’re not saying you can’t do this, you’re saying let’s be realistic with what your options are currently.” Counselors must be honest with their students and evaluate how they have struggled or succeeded throughout high school, he added.

Rathje encourages students to apply wherever they want. He finds it “heartbreaking” whenever students get accepted into their dream schools and then receive a financial package that doesn’t offer them enough to attend. He said counselors often suggest local schools because they offered substantial aid in the past and because students can stay close to home, which is often a big factor in their decision-making.

Tanner Cassidy, salutatorian of East Aurora High School, graduated from North Central College in 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in music and is now working on a PhD in music theory.

The right fit

Margarita Llamas, fourth in her class of 2014 and a 2018 graduate of Aurora University, said she only looked at schools where she could commute from home. AU was her top choice because she knew about its nursing program, and it was close to home. “My family is a big support system for me so whenever I had difficulty or questions, they were close by,” Llamas said. “I wouldn’t feel like I was alone.”

She’s not the only highly-qualified student to eschew selective options because they want to go to a school near home. Tanner Cassidy, salutatorian of his class of 2014, graduated from North Central College in 2018. He said he chose NCC because he wanted to stay close to home for emotional and financial reasons. “If I had more support from people that had gone to college, people that could talk about what the first-year process was like or people that could explain what moving across the country would look like in terms of emotional and mental support, I might have been more adventurous with my application decisions.”

Cassidy felt unprepared for college both socially and academically. He said even in graduate school today at the University of California, Santa Barbara, he feels like he doesn’t belong. “I still deal with this feeling of being an imposter, and that I’m never going to be prepared enough to be where I’m at, and this all stems from my time in high school,” he said. As a first-generation college graduate from a low socioeconomic status, he feels like an outsider.

Many of the students interviewed for this story from East struggle with the transition process from high school to college, experiencing a culture shock. Strand refers to East as a homogenous community where no one has much wealth or privilege. “Going from a population that you can easily talk to and understand then going to a whole new school where no one knows anything about your culture is just very weird,” said Gerardo Alcantara, third in his class of 2014 and a 2018 pre-med graduate from the University of Chicago.

East Aurora High School Spanish teacher Guillermo Pedroni displays college banners in his classroom to encourage his students to pursue a college education.

East Aurora is taking some steps to create a college readiness environment, including by hiring Rathje as their first counselor dedicated to post-secondary education.

During his four years at East, Rathje has gotten to know the students better and found ways to connect with them. He asks open-ended questions, such as, “Imagine if you had the perfect job, what would it be?” Although he admits it’s a challenge to get students to the career center, he tries to reach out to them through class presentations and informational videos.

King said new educators and counselors do not consider East Aurora their first option, but he wants people to know that it is “an outstanding community to work in.” He thinks if the district provided more competitive pay, like wealthier neighboring districts, more people would be attracted to work at East and encouraged to stay longer. The longer a staff member works in the community, the more they understand what the students need to be successful.

Regardless of the lack of college preparation or guidance, students feel a strong connection to East Aurora. “I’m definitely still incredibly grateful that’s where I come from and proud of it,” Strand said.