Nolvia Delgado is Executive Director of the Kaplan Educational Foundation (KEF), a 501 (c)(3) which seeks to eliminate barriers to higher education for underserved and underrepresented community college students and develop them as leaders and advocates for their community. She leads the strategic direction and management of KEF’s Kaplan Leadership Program, which provides a comprehensive array of financial, academic, advising and transfer admissions support to help talented community college students transfer to four-year universities. Since its inception in 2006, the program has helped more than 100 Scholars gain admission to the most competitive schools in the U.S.; 92% of KLP Scholars earn a bachelor’s degree.
Like many others, I was deeply concerned when the Supreme Court recently overturned affirmative action in college admissions. And I’ve closely followed the urgent discussion since then about the need to end the legacy advantage many children of alumni still receive in the competitive admission process. But I also know we need to be ready for a much more far-reaching set of reforms if we want to advance equity and create a richer mix of students on our college campuses in this new era.
It’s absolutely true that the legacy advantage gives wealthy, mostly white, students a big leg up in the scramble to gain admission to highly selective colleges, as documented in a recent study by Opportunity Insights, a Harvard-based group of economists. But many observers point out that those sought-after institutions enroll only a fraction of all students. And in any case, even the desirable step of removing preferences for legacies may just result in those slots being filled by a pretty demographically similar set of students. That’s because educational inequality still tracks pretty closely with race and class in this country.
So what other measures will help level the playing field? First, we need to recognize how many strengths underrepresented students have already demonstrated just to get as far as they have. It’s also clear that we need to build a much more robust set of supports for students who didn’t grow up with a lot of advantages.
I’m a first-generation college student myself: I started at the Borough of Manhattan Community College before transferring and graduating from Smith College. Anybody with this background, or who works with first-generation undergraduates like the community college transfer students we support at the Kaplan Educational Foundation, knows that talent is a lot more evenly distributed than opportunity. The next step in admissions reform is to do much more to seek out talented students from underrepresented backgrounds wherever they are — in community colleges, for example — and to be ready to evaluate their applications perceptively and fairly.
Putting a different lens on strengths vs deficits
To recognize what these students have to offer, colleges need to adopt an asset-based approach to low-income applicants, rather than a deficit-based model that focuses more heavily on their weaknesses. What do I mean by that?
Students – particularly first-generation college students – often don’t realize how they can present what they have learned from what they consider everyday activities as strengths and accomplishments. A great example is recognizing all the skills many young people developed in helping family members navigate the healthcare system at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Many of the students I work with were kept very busy, on top of their schoolwork, with everything from finding medical providers for their relatives to sorting through indecipherable insurance paperwork. They learned a lot in the process, just as they do from the jobs that so many hold to help support their families, whether as home health aides or in fast-food restaurants or retail stores. Problem-solving, perseverance, adaptability, advocacy, family leadership and guidance – these are all valuable skills, but students need coaching to understand how to present these as strengths. This coaching deficit is related to their need to develop social capital, which includes both accessing networks and also mobilizing those networks to improve their opportunities. Being able to filter the experiences of low-income students through a character and skills-based lens can help colleges recognize what they have to offer.
Taking a human-centered approach to support
Bringing more first-generation and low-income students to college campuses is only the first step, of course. Colleges need to be ready to provide a range of wraparound supports to new and larger populations of those students, whether they enroll directly or arrive as transfers from community colleges. That includes providing mental health services in the post-COVID era, addressing food insecurity, and taking seriously the needs of students with great promise but without a lot of privilege.
A human-centered approach, emphasizing one-on-one relationships, really matters. It gives students space to ask questions and to feel supported – particularly critical for first-generation college students. I know this firsthand. When I enrolled at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, I was one of many students with lots of other responsibilities, including a time-consuming outside job. I had goals and dreams, but not necessarily a clear vision for how to achieve them. I only vaguely remember meeting my first advisor, once. The meeting felt very transactional – sort of like going through the check-out line at any random store.
Encounters like this, unfortunately, are pretty common at large public colleges. But my experience was completely different when I became part of the CUNY Accelerated Study in Associate Programs. The ASAP initiative gives community college students academic, professional, and financial support. I had real conversations with my new advisor, Chris. He knew what was happening in my life. He knew where I was trying to go next. It was clear he was invested in my success. I felt seen.
That kind of personal advising relationship – even more, I think, than some attention-getting elements of ASAP, like free Metrocards for subway and bus rides – is crucial to the program’s effectiveness. Participants have an average three-year graduation rate of nearly 50 percent, which is more than double the rate of a comparison group of similar students not in the program. No wonder ASAP has received so much national attention, leading to more investment and expansion – it now serves about 25,000 students annually, up from 4000 in 2014.
With promising evidence like this already available to us, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic about the future of college admissions, student support, and diversity. But it will require far-reaching efforts that go well beyond dropping legacy admissions. If we take an asset-based approach to admitting students from low-income backgrounds, then support them comprehensively and with a personal touch, those undergraduates and the colleges they attend are sure to benefit.