Covid, the wealth gap, college applications

Pandemic also created startling rise in how wealth affects application process

Over the course of the pandemic, the important step of transitioning from high school to college has changed, along with the rest of the world, and students in the new virtual environment have had to navigate new challenges. 

The rise of Covid prompted the suspension of most in-person campus tours, college fairs, and in-person college support from school counselors. The lack of such programs hurts low-income students the most. 

Seeing how a campus does or does not match expectations is crucial for prospective students. Many colleges replaced in-person tours with virtual ones, but these do not capture details and nuances students need to see or feel as they search for their future college. 

Stephanie Marple, a college outreach teacher at Deer Valley High School in Antioch, said, “We usually take field trips to Los Medanos College, where students can talk to professors and even look for internships. We weren’t able to visit or get into much contact these last few years and the online alternative just doesn’t have the same opportunities.” 

Los Medanos is a two-year college. During the pandemic, students haven’t had access to EMT certificate programs or internships, limiting their future possibilities. Many students have been cut off from trade programs and from transferring to a four-year college.

With the cancellation of college fairs, prospective students have also been shut out of learning more about specific undergraduate programs. Colleges began hosting virtual information sessions and webinars in recent months, but these events are both unusable to students without wifi and reduce students’ capacity to get answers to their individual questions. 

The pandemic has also created a startling rise in how wealth affects the application process, giving wealthier students an unfair advantage.  Affluent families have turned to independent college counselors to help with essays and applications.  Students without the same means lost their primary support system, consisting of public school counselors, that made applying to and getting into college possible. 

Outside organizations are trying to step in to fill the gap left by public schools. One such organization is Students Rising Above, a non-profit dedicated to aiding students from underserved communities both in applying to college and in providing help throughout their college experience. 

Veli Waller, a full-time counselor at Students Rising, explained their mission: “Students that apply to (our program) are driven and committed to education, and are only missing the resources that would propel them into success at college. We provide these necessary extra resources to these students and help them with financial aid, college applications, and provide aid wherever possible to ensure they succeed.”      

While Students Rising is an amazing resource to those who have access to it, there is a limited number of students it can help. Students must apply and be accepted, and out of 450 students applying, only 75 were accepted this year. Even though non-profits like Students Rising help, the wealth gap continues to shut many qualified low-income students out of higher education.

High schools and colleges must work together to make college more accessible for students for whom higher education is little more than a dream. The move toward test-optional admissions is a step in the right direction, but it is not enough. Public schools need to promote a college-going mindset for students by restoring counselors and resources that make applying to colleges accessible and realistic. 

A version of this article first appeared in the Lamorinda Weekly.