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Report: Poor Students Face Unfair Barriers to Top Colleges

A new report shows low-income students rarely get into the nation's top colleges. (iStockphoto)
A new report shows low-income students rarely get into the nation's top colleges. (iStockphoto)
January 15, 2016

PIERRE, S.D. - Low-income students make up just 3 percent of the student body at the country's most selective colleges, according to research published this week by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.

The report, titled "True Merit," also showed that the nation's wealthiest students make up almost three-quarters of the population at about 100 of the schools which reject most applicants. A program called South Dakota Jump Start is available for low-income and Native American students who need assistance. The program is still in its first year.

Project director Rhoda Smith said they launched last year with a goal of helping about 900 students.

"So that's part of why we start working with students in high school," she said, "just to help them see that they really can be successful in college and to see that that's going to make a difference to them and their families and their communities."

Smith said there's a need for something like Jump Start, which provides access to financial and academic advisers, because many of these students are underrepresented in college settings.

Harold Levy, executive director of the foundation, said the problem for low-income students is twofold.

"They don't apply because they get poor college advising," he said, "and for the students who do apply, the actual admissions process is rigged against them."

Levy suggested that college admissions boards should implement a "poverty preference" for high-performing, low-income students to help level the playing field. He pointed to admissions tests as one example of how these students face far more barriers in the application process than their more affluent peers.

"Kids in poverty are given a fee waiver to take the SAT once," he said. "Kids of middle class and wealth take it repeatedly and submit their best grades. How fair is that?"

This report comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is considering arguments to roll back race-based affirmative action in college admissions.

The report is online at South Dakota Jump Start information is at

Brandon Campbell/Dallas Heltzell, Public News Service - SD