The Effort to Guide Low-Income, Top Students to Elite Colleges

Friday, March 29, 2013

As college acceptance letters go out, Mariely Garcia is one of the high school seniors already breathing easy. She applied early decision to Bowdoin and found out months ago that she'll be going there in the fall on a full-ride.

"I kinda started crying cause I was just so excited," said Garcia. "And I went to my mom, she was in the room, and I was like, ‘Mommy, I’m going to college in Maine. To Bowdoin. For free.’”

Compared to her Harlem neighborhood, Garcia said Bowdoin, in Brunswick, Maine, is kind of in "the middle of nowhere." But she likes that idea. She grew up in a public housing apartment and became accustomed to hearing rounds of gun shots, she said. Safety issues troubled her and, as she wrote in her college essay, she found herself "more than ready to move on to a new home in a better neighborhood."

Garcia was able to stay optimistic, and extremely focused, during her high school years. She is leaving the Richard R. Greene High School of Teaching with a nearly perfect grade point average and is first in her class. She's also determined to change the world, she said, and started a Tumblr page called Perfectly Made that aims to combat self-esteem issues among teenagers. She hopes to turn it into a non-profit organization one day.

Despite her talents and motivation, without some tips from her high school guidance counselor and several non-profit professionals, she may not have found her way to a competitive liberal arts college.

Nationwide, there are up to 35,000 high-achieving students who come from low-income families, according to a recent study from researchers at Stanford and Harvard. These are student who score in the top 10 percent or higher on college entrance exams and maintain a grade point average of at least an A-. The data showed that many of these students are not applying to selective schools.

According to the study, top students from higher-income families tend to apply to a range of schools, including the most competitive ones. But only about eight percent of students in families making approximately $41,500 or less annually follow this same practice. In addition, more than half of students in this high-achieving, low-income group only applied to less competitive schools.

The key, perhaps, to getting these students to apply to better colleges is exposing them to their options.

"We do college trips with our students so they can see what it's like on a liberal arts campus," said Jessica Pliska, founder and C.E.O. of The Opportunity Network. "We're talking about schools -- Vassar, Wesleyan -- that are within two and three hours of New York City that our students have literally never heard of."

The Opportunity Network took Garcia on a college tour, which is how she discovered that she loved Bowdoin. The group also provides students with intensive college counseling and mentoring through the college years. There are several organizations in New York City that mentor top high school students in the same way, including the Oliver Scholars Program, Summer Search and Scholarship Plus (New York Public Radio provides internships for Scholarship Plus students).

A California-based organization, Questbridge, works to directly link top-performing students with highly-selective colleges and universities. Garcia applied to Bowdoin through the organization's college match program.

Pliska said her organization, and others like it, exist to compensate for all of the information that low-income students do not grow up with. 

"Despite how talented they are, and how driven they are and motivated they are," said Pliska, "they are sitting so far outside of any spheres of influence and knowledge about what it means to get accepted to college and go to college and build a career."


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Comments [6]

SEO Scholars from New York City

SEO Scholars is another NYC-based program that helps low-income students get into top colleges. Our free eight-year program provides a rigorous academic course of study throughout high school and continues with academic, psychosocial and financial aid support through college. 100% of our students are accepted to four-year colleges (close to 90% attend elite institutions). 80% graduate in four years / 95% graduate in six years. Learn more about the work we do at

Apr. 04 2013 12:30 PM

The author of this article leaves out an important point about the study. High-performing, low income students in large cities like New York are more likely to attend elite colleges than high-performing, low income students in smaller cities and rural areas. These elite schools recruit in big cities but essentially ignore smaller cities and rural areas.

Mar. 29 2013 05:45 PM

What about informing them that not all universities are need blind.

As a low-income student raised by a high school drop out single mom, I had no idea that a school could reject me because I could not afford it. I understand that the universities may not have the money, but it seems unjust to deny someone the education they deserve because they are poor.

Mar. 29 2013 02:55 PM
Meaghan G from River Vale, NJ

Congratulations Mariely! Bowdoin is a very special place and it sounds like they are very lucky to have you. Happy that WNYC highlighted your achievements.

Wishing you much success!
Meaghan C. Guiney
Bowdoin '00

Mar. 29 2013 11:43 AM

Wonderful! Ought to help low-middle income students also!

Mar. 29 2013 10:01 AM

TEAK Fellowship does this as well

Mar. 29 2013 09:36 AM

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