SESP Faculty Discuss College Access at Quest Scholars Network Event

Quest Panel

At a Quest Scholars Network panel discussion event, SESP faculty members explored solutions to the inequity in college access in the United States. Faculty members Mesmin Destin, James Rosenbaum, dean Penelope Peterson and Northwestern President Morton Schapiro conveyed key points about closing the gap in access to a college education for students with similar achievement but different socioeconomic backgrounds.

SESP student Daniel Nissani, who as co-president of the Quest Scholars Network organized the event, acted as moderator for the discussion on “Access to Higher Education for Low-Income Students” at Hardin Hall on December 5. The panel addressed reasons why students of low socioeconomic background currently have less access to higher education — including a knowledge gap, different cultures and varying financial resources.

To increase access to higher education for low-income students, college counseling is crucial, according to the panelists. Compared with middle-class and upper-class students, low-income students often lack the necessary cultural capital to navigate college applications and college itself. In addition, in college admissions low income is weighted less than minority status, and low-income students often have sticker shock over the high cost of private institutions and are unable to imagine themselves at such colleges. For these reasons, colleges lose out on many capable applicants.

Panelists emphasized the importance of beginning college counseling early, in fact the sooner the better. Counseling low-income students starting in elementary school would increase access to higher education, they said, but ninth grade is the earliest college counseling should begin.

Notably, low-income students may fare better at four-year institutions than at community colleges. Retention rates are lower for students attending community college compared with those attending four-year institutions.

Overall, the panel commented on the value of low-income students going to prestigious universities such as Northwestern. At such schools, the students build a network of friends and colleagues to help them with their lives after college. However, it was also noted that because of the culture at elite private universities low-income students tend to be, on average, less happy than middle and upperclass students.

Schapiro, an economist with special expertise in the economics of higher education, maintains a commitment to providing access to students regardless of socioeconomic background, and Northwestern is one of only 28 schools in the nation certified by the government as need-blind. After the December 5 event, he hosted a dinner for the Quest students who organized the event. 

Nissani, a secondary teaching major, sees college access as a huge problem for students of limited means. “Low-income students throughout the country are being failed every day, whether it be supplies that are necessary for learning or access to the opportunities that could help them succeed,” he says.

Northwestern Quest Scholars Network works to obtain various opportunities and provide them to low-income students on campus. “We teach them how to take advantage of the amazing opportunity that is Northwestern,” he says.

By Marilyn Sherman and Daniel Nissani
Last Modified: 12/6/12