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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.