College joins coalition focused on increasing access

As concerns proliferate over student economic diversity and disparity around Swarthmore and higher education in general, the college has joined a nationwide initiative that seeks to transform the landscape of the college application process. Swarthmore is one of 85 colleges and universities that comprise the recently announced Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success. The Coalition is developing tools that will make preparation for and knowledge of the college admissions procedure more accessible to low-income high schoolers that currently lack the opportunities of their more privileged peers.

The Coalition is focusing on two major projects to that end. One is a set of free online tools, including a digital portfolio of student work and a database of college information statistics, that can be used at all high schools around the nation. The Coalition’s hope is that schools with many low-income students that do not already have similar resources will take advantage of these tools, which the group is collectively terming an Internet “locker.” The second is an online application platform that will be an alternative to the Common Application, which is currently used by more than 600 American schools. This new application system will be integrated with the online portfolio system so that colleges can tailor and customize their applications, and so students can have more guidance and structure in planning and applying for college.

Swarthmore is one of many similar schools that are part of the Coalition. Most of the current members are relatively prestigious, highly-ranked colleges and universities, including small, Swarthmore-esque liberal arts schools like Williams and Pomona, as well as large public institutions such as the Universities of Michigan and Virginia. All members must have a six-year graduation rate above 70%.

Bringing students with a diverse range of incomes into the world of higher education has become a more visible nationwide issue, and is particularly noteworthy at Swarthmore. The college was cited by the New York Times in 2014 as an example of a “resource-rich college” that has less economic diversity than many other institutions do. In the Times’ 2015 College Access Index, which reviews statistics to measure the share of the student body that is being economically supported, the college ranked fifty-sixth, well below most peer schools like the Ivies and others in the Tri-Co, despite having the sixth-largest per-student endowment in the nation.

While these data do not necessarily tell the whole story of student income diversity at the college, they are indicative of the troubles schools like Swarthmore are facing in recruiting and retaining young adults from a wide range of financial situations. Recent research has shown that economically disadvantaged students are less active in the application process than students with more resources. Less privileged high schoolers receive little guidance in researching schools, filling out applications and seeking financial aid; students that are capable of qualifying for top universities often end up selecting lower-tier schools for various reasons.

The Coalition seeks to identify and mitigate the factors for this recurring problem – both by having colleges enhance their efforts to reach out and accept such students, and by better preparing students for the application process.

“Coalition schools offer students incredible choice in location, size, selectivity, and mission, but we all share a commitment that the students we admit can afford to attend and will have a high likelihood of graduating,” James G. Nondorf, vice president for enrollment and dean of college admissions at the University of Chicago, said in a press release from the coalition.

“That should give students confidence that college is within their reach, and that they can be successful,” he said.

Andy Strickler, dean of admission and financial aid at Connecticut College, agrees that the Coalition is an important step towards creating new opportunities for students of all economic backgrounds to have a shot at higher education.

“I can only speak for Connecticut College on this matter, but I believe that all Coalition application schools are interested in making the college admission process more accessible to low income and first generation students,” he said.

“At Conn, we care very deeply about creating pathways for these students to pursue a post-secondary education, whether at Conn or other great four year colleges and universities. Additional options, in our opinion, are a positive for students from any background.”

Nationally, higher education leaders and experts have raised concerns over just how accessible the Coalition’s efforts will actually be. John Warner, a professor at the College of Charleston, noted in an article for Insider Higher Ed that well-connected high schoolers who are already aware of such resources may just feel pressured to utilize the online “locker” tool as another way to gain an edge in the eyes of prestigious colleges, and to do so from the very first day of high school.

“While I respect the principle behind the coalition’s initiative, that we should be assessing applicants on something other than standardized test scores, as the high school counselors recognize, without much more thought, the inevitable result will be to simply add an additional dimension to the higher ed admissions arms race,” Warner wrote.

Enticing students to begin planning for college as early as possible, the Coalition argues, is actually a good thing.

“[The application process] is kind of a race to the finish line, and it is anxiety-inducing for everybody,” said Julie Peterson, a representative of the Coalition, to The Dartmouth. “What these admissions people felt was that they want students to start thinking about college earlier, because they want to make sure that they are prepared by the time they go [to college], that they have assembled the right classes and the right experiences to be successful in college.”

Still, the potential for privileged students to co-opt a system intended for under-resourced high schoolers is there, and it is a valid concern for the involved schools. In the end, though, Strickler believes the onus to keep the focus of these tools on accessibility is on individual schools.

“Will it succeed? Time will tell. The true test of whether this succeeds will rise and fall with the decisions that institutions make regarding who they admit, and that falls on individual colleges and universities,” Strickler noted.

Swarthmore notes on its website that fully half of all students receive direct financial aid from the school, with an average aid award of nearly $40,000.

The Coalition also believes building an alternative to the Common App is a key part of its approach. They argue that the universality of the system has made the admissions process too homogeneous; applying to very different schools is too similar, so that students have trouble matching themselves to the right schools. Swarthmore and other schools will have the opportunity to design their own applications, allowing students to differentiate between colleges and identify the ones that best suit them. Some schools, for example, are already planning to de-emphasize standardized test scores, while others hope to introduce a range of potential supplements that are not currently available on the Common App.

The online portfolio is scheduled to be available in January 2016. The new application is planned to be used for the first time for the high school class of 2017.

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