College access continues to be an issue for low-income students of color in the U.S. School based professionals, including school social workers can do a lot to advocate for and improve access for low-income students of color. Even though college enrollment has become increasingly racially diverse over the years, many low-income students of color struggle to overcome debt, obtain employment, and/or even stay in college due to the racial and financial burdens and lack of resources for them. According to the Pell Institute, the disparity for low-income students of color is only widening. College is getting more expensive each year. Students and families in general are still recovering from the pandemic, the racialized violence, and social unrest impacting our present and future. In that context, we must continue to find answers to help narrow that disparity and continue to increase diversity in college enrollment. During my senior year of high school, I decided to address that question and find some answers and solutions. In particular, I wanted to address these questions in my suburban community because of the lack of available information in our geographic area and to figure out what changes or additions could be implemented in our school. I wanted to focus on my suburban context as research on low-income students of color rarely considers their experiences in that context. It is assumed that these areas are resource-rich, and that those resources are distributed equitably.
The question for this research project was “To what extent does the lack of knowledge on college financial aid opportunities emotionally impact low-income students of color in suburban high schools?” The hypothesis was that a lack of knowledge on college financial aid opportunities has a negative emotional impact on low-income students of color in suburban high schools. To test this hypothesis, surveys and interviews were conducted between January to March 2023, after college applications were due, to evaluate the upperclassmen’s emotional well-being in the context of college admissions process. The data was analyzed by identifying any repeating themes with attention to differences across racial and socioeconomic statuses.
During the research process, I was also going through the college process as a low-income student of color in a suburban high school, a school that was not designed for students like me. Even though my emotions got the best of me sometimes, the research project provided reflection and some reassurance for me. I knew from my own lived experience that this disparity for low-income students of color in education existed. I knew about the pressures we have to deal with to support our families while planning for a future with stability and security for ourselves and our families. I knew how students, regardless of their geographic location, did not have equal and equitable access to higher education. I knew, but I had to understand more about why. Doing this research gave me the answers and explanations to understand more about why.
After about nine months of research, I concluded that I was wrong. Lack of knowledge on college financial opportunities did not emotionally impact low-income students of color in suburban schools. Rather, it was a lack of guidance that emotionally impacted these students during their college process. All low-income students of color felt stress about the college process. Regardless of what amount of financial knowledge they had, the pressure of money, decisions, and their overall future instilled a lot of anxiety and a sense of burn-out for the students. Yet, the students who were part of college-access programs like Thrive Scholars or Questbridge, or had college advisors in their school who supported them reported feeling reassured and less stressed. Low-income students of color who had a trusted adult who could guide them through the college process, such as finances, reported higher levels of emotional well-being. The research demonstrated how significant guidance and support during this process are for a student's emotional well-being.
Now that the answer is that students, specifically low-income students of color, need guidance and a trusted adult through navigating college financial aid opportunities, it is the time to figure out how to implement that guidance and support into schools.
The first answer is college advisors that have training regarding how to support low-income students of color. College counselors should be familiar with the unique stresses and challenges that low-income student of color face. A staff member needs to have specialized knowledge in the college process, be available for low-income minoritized high school students, and understand their unique needs and stressors.
If a college advisor is not possible due to school funding or other circumstances, then schools should have other school-based counselors trained in the college process, academically and financially, to ensure they are fully well-rounded and equipped to support all students.
Social workers can support the college going process for low-income students of color by helping to spread knowledge about various college-access programs like Questbridge and Thrive. All school-based counselors and social workers would be aware of or search for these programs to help their students.
Social workers and other school-based professionals can advocate that college-access programs expand their recruitment across suburban and rural areas to ensure every student has a chance.
Social workers can collaborate with college counselors and teachers to support low-income students of color and their families in the college going process, providing psychoeducation about ways to cope with stress, and ensuring that there is a bridge between families and the school to provide any needed support regarding access to resources.
While these answers can seem burdensome and difficult to implement, they are essential. Low-income students of color in the U.S. are extremely motivated to go to college. However, they face additional barriers, and they need all school based professionals regardless of their role, to support them in this process.
Tasfia Ahmad is a first-year college student at Lehigh University. She conducted this research as a part of an AP Research class during her senior year of high school at a public school in Egg Harbor Township. Ms. Ahmad is low-income student, first-generation student who identifies as Bangladeshi American. She plans to study Political Science in college and hopes to develop policies and solutions to help students like herself in the U.S.
Resources  Morgan Taylor & Jonathan M. Turk. (2019). Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education. American Council on Education and Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://www.equityinhighered.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Low-Income-Students-Brief-final.pdf  Pell Institute. Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education: A Look at Low-Income Undergraduates. American Council on Education. https://www.equityinhighered.org/resources/ideas-and-insights/race-and-ethnicity-in-higher-education-a-look-at-low-income-undergraduates/  Thrive Scholars provide high-achieving students of color from economically under-resourced communities high school to college preparation and transition programs. Thrive scholars go to top colleges on full scholarships. Programs include summer programming and coaching sessions among other opportunities. Learn more at https://www.thrivescholars.org/  Questbridge aims to match talented low-income students of color with exceptional college experiences by matching students to college opportunities and supporting them through high school and college.