Without adequate college counseling from their schools, high achievers turn to their families. But the guidance families are able to provide differs greatly by social class. As in many other families where no one has attended college, Karen’s parents viewed all college degrees as equal. As Karen told it, their attitude was: “It’s a school. You’ll get a degree.”
Even when poorer families suspect college quality might vary, they have difficulty assessing it. And without a clear way to compare institutions based on quality, poorer families concentrate on sticker price. Many valedictorians from lower socioeconomic backgrounds took one look at a college’s price tag and were immediately scared away from even applying. Karen’s father recoiled from private colleges’ list prices, which were higher than his annual income. And while Karen was confident she could be admitted to institutions with large price tags, she concluded there was “no point in applying” since she didn’t believe her family could foot the bill.
Families eliminate good college options because they don’t understand the extent to which need-based aid can reduce their actual costs. Karen admitted that she was “totally clueless” about financial aid. She was not alone in feeling this way. More than half of the valedictorians I surveyed who applied for financial aid reported that they did not have a strong understanding of the financial aid process by the fall of their senior year. And some families who would have qualified for aid were so misinformed that they did not even explore it as a possibility. Numerous families did not know that at some elite institutions, households earning less than $200,000 a year do not pay full price, and those earning less than $65,000 pay nothing at all.
When I asked Karen why she did not look into more selective universities given her stellar credentials, she replied, “Maybe just because no one told me to consider anything else. I don’t know. That’s what I knew.” Lacking outside guidance, many top students explore potential colleges by investigating only institutions that are already familiar. The problem is that social class shapes the types of colleges that students know. Poorer valedictorians may have heard of large, prominent universities like Harvard and Princeton, but compared with their wealthier peers they were aware of far fewer elite colleges overall.
In addition, poorer top students have difficulty envisioning themselves at prestigious universities. Valedictorians expressed concerns that top colleges would be too far from home, too academic, too intense, and not allow for a social life. Those who held these apprehensions tended not to have a student or alumnus from an elite university in their social network. In contrast, those who knew someone from a prestigious institution were more comfortable with the idea of attending a college farther from home and were less likely to think that the undergraduates at these institutions were out of their league academically or lacked time for fun. All too often, however, poorer valedictorians were less likely to know someone from a top college.