A class officer ranked in the top 10 percent of the class at her California high school, Jessica Chevallier boasted a 4.o grade point average. She had everything she needed to gain admission to a top university — except $50.
Daunted by the $50 application fee, Jessica didn’t apply to the prestigious University of California campuses. Somehow, she never learned that universities waive their fees for applicants from low-income families.
Jessica shares her experiences in “First Generation,” a compelling new documentary that follows four California high school students as they struggle to become the first in their families to go to college.
Earlier this month, filmmakers and married couple Jaye and Adam Fenderson showed their documentary in Atlanta and talked afterward about what drove them to chronicle the efforts of the four students over three years. While all four get to college, they don’t end up at the campus of their dreams even though the schools were within their academic reach.
A former senior admissions officer at Columbia University, Jaye Fenderson realized that aspiring applicants were often adrift if they weren’t raised in families where going to college after high school was as ingrained as brushing your teeth after meals.
A new study released this month by Stanford and Harvard researchers found that low-income students with high test scores and grades don’t apply to the nation’s top colleges even though those well-endowed schools offer more financial aid than community colleges or less selective campuses.
The study states: “We show that a large number — probably the vast majority — of very high-achieving students from low-income families do not apply to a selective college or university. This is in contrast to students with the same test scores and grades who come from high-income backgrounds: They are overwhelmingly likely to apply to a college whose median student has achievement much like their own.”
Why don’t poor kids apply to top schools? The study and the documentary suggest several reasons: The students aren’t urged to do by their families or their college counselors. They are unlikely to know graduates of such schools, even among the staffs at their high schools. The colleges aren’t actively or effectively recruiting these kids who fly under the radar.
While a high-scoring low-income student receives the mass mailings colleges send, the study notes that glossy brochures are likely to dissuade the poor student since “the brochures will give him the same information about the college’s costs and financial aid as they would give to a rich student who needed no aid at all. “
“From any average middle or upper middle-class family, college would be something that was encouraged or pushed. But these kids fall through the cracks,” said Jaye Fenderson.
Adam Fenderson contrasted the experiences of the teens in his film with his own and those of other upper middle-class students who are urged “to enroll in SAT prep and to take the SAT three times and have 10 people read their college essays.”
While the film shows each of the teens meeting with counselors, the sessions are cursory, not surprising in high schools with one counselor per 800 students.
During her session on applying to college, Cecilia Lopez — whose migrant worker father has been deported to Mexico and whose mother has gone to visit her husband and left Cecilia on her own — is told by the counselor that perhaps her parents or perhaps an aunt can give her money for tuition.
The question of how to afford college is the most pressing for the teens, all of whom are from households likely to have qualified for full needs-based aid. “As a lower-income student, you don’t realize the opportunities that are there, and no one is really helping you see those opportunities,” said Adam Fenderson.
For both the teens in the film and three local students who spoke after the documentary premiered in Atlanta, families didn’t help because they didn’t know how to navigate the financial aid maze of FAFSA, the CSS/Financial Aid Profile, online loan counseling and subsidized and non-subsidized loans.
Kristy Williams, a student at Oglethorpe University, will be the first in her family to earn a college degree. She credits the accomplishment to Project GRAD Atlanta, which provides academic, behavioral, social services and college access interventions for students in the Atlanta Public Schools. (Project GRAD sponsored the showing of “First Generation.”)
The youngest of 13 children,Williams said the message from her family after she graduated Booker T. Washington High School in 2006 was not “go to college,” but, “Get a job. They didn’t understand that I could get a better job if I went to college.”
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