Changing the Dialogue: How We Can Push Low-Income, Top Performing Students into Competitive Colleges

(Ariana and I posing with her University of California, Irvine acceptance letter-a proud and exciting moment for both of us!)

(Ariana and I posing with her University of California, Irvine acceptance letter–a proud and exciting moment for both of us!)

By: Alex Serna, Program Director, Breakthrough San Juan Capistrano

It was as if we were negotiating a nuclear treaty and for the last 4 years she worked assiduously to someday realize her dreams of becoming the first in her family to attend college. Then, that someday arrived. We sat and discussed her college list. The air was still as the crisp, cool fall ambient enveloped our conversation leading to a moment that became the turning point in her life. For many high-achieving, low-income students “undermatch” is a real phenomenon, one that Brookings defines as, “students attending less challenging colleges than their academic credentials would allow them to.” The New York Times credits this trend with widening economic inequality and low levels of mobility. These academically promising students, “wind up in community college or mediocre four-year schools”, with less financial, academic and social support leading to high rates of attrition (NPR). But, “undermatch” can either be realized or be overcome with dialogue. However, let me be clear; we are not talking about simple dialogue-but a relentless, aspirational dialogue focused on acknowledging the student’s strengths rather than their weaknesses. 

The role of the college counselor is unique in that you hold the key to students’ futures. You help illuminate the future they cannot yet see for themselves. Ariana, a student I started working with 3 years ago, was in the top 10% of her class, a committed member of the city’s youth council, among other things, and the daughter of single mother who never graduated high school. On paper, she was a very competitive applicant to the most selective universities. But in her mind, she had doubts about being admitted to a local state school. “No, Alex. Why would I waste my time applying there? I am never going to be accepted.” is what she said when I urged her to consider applying to private colleges she had never heard of. “Look, the purpose of a strong college list is to have a variety of schools. Apply to those state schools, but add a few you’ve never heard of. Open your options, don’t limit them.” I countered. After weeks of constant back and forth, further deliberation, nudges, and more pushing, she finally agreed to expand her college list and include schools that she initially believed she would never be admitted to.

Like Karin Chenoweth says, we need to be, “relentlessly respectful and respectfully relentless”  in the work that we do. It’s a mantra I carry with me every day as I work with my students. To overcome “undermatch” as college counselors we need to step into some discomfort and have crucial dialogues with our students. Dialogues where we value their strengths and never doubt their potential. With that mindset, some patience, and persistence we can enable them to consider options they might not have otherwise.

A year after our fall meeting, Ariana was admitted to 7 out of the 12 colleges she had on her list. Her mom cried with happiness when she submitted her decision to attend the University of California, Irvine-a school she never thought she would attend. A life, a family, and a future generation was transformed. In the end, many students like Ariana are not given the access to attend selective institutions that fit the hard work and determination that has propelled them academically. “Undermatch” is not only an issue of access for non-traditional students, but a challenge that impacts the economic vitality of the nation. Ariana and her mom’s determination to succeed was not taken in vain and like many high-achieving, low-income students she got what she truly deserved.

About the Author

Alex Serna is a Program Director for Breakthrough San Juan Capistrano, a nonprofit with the dual mission to support highly motivated, but underserved students by providing tuition-free, year-round academic support and college counseling for 10 years. He earned his B.A in American Studies from UC Berkeley, later enrolling in UCLA’s Teacher Education Program where he received his master’s degree in urban education and secondary social studies teaching credential. He has four daughters and resides in Orange County, CA.

Follow Alex on Twitter at: @alsernabjj


  • Hector Cuevas says:


    Great article and phenomenal work you are doing! I have always thought that we should also be focusing on top talented underrepresented students like Ariana. I have served as a Private College Counselor to students whose parents could afford the costs of my services. However, I know that many of the students like Ariana, have parents who could never afford to hire a Private College Counselor to help them not only expand their list of prospective colleges and universities but to build a highly competitive admissions portfolio.

    I recently served as a Research Policy Analyst for the Campaign for College Opportunity in the Sacramento Office with Jessie Ryan and currently the Assistant Director of Career and Professional Development at UC Merced. Reading your article compels me to contribute in some way to promote access to top colleges for students like Ariana. If you would are interested, I have published a Post on my LinkedIn Page on gaining admissions to highly selective schools; . Given that I started my full-time job at UC Merced, in January of this year, perhaps, I could contribute to your work or organization via email, Skype, phone etc on a volunteer basis or for an organization in Merced, if you know of one that you would recommend.

    You are doing important work.

    Best Regards,

    Hector Cuevas

  • Competitive edge gives you more power and opportunities. I have been thinking about the destiny of low-income students for a long time now. It’s a pity that these talented people have no chance for a good level of education if they cannot pay for the tuition. This is the time for the scholarships and programs that can help these students get into the best colleges. Thanks for the article above. We can learn a lot from it. I will share the story with fellow educators and see what they think on the matter.

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