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Do Rich White Kids Automatically Think They're Harvard Material?

According to counselors, low-income black students need to be talked up into applying to elite schools. Well-off white students need talking down.

High school guidance counselors and college admissions officers need to adjust their college counseling approach depending on a student's racial and socioeconomic differences. At least that's the thinking in a piece from the Chronicle of Higher Education, "Redefining Admissions 'Success' For Black Males," which spotlights some of the dialogue that took place Monday at the regional Potomac & Chesapeake Association for College Admission Counseling's annual conference. Counselors and college admissions staff are thinking through needed shifts in their approach to both underrepresented groups, like black males, and groups that historically have had more access to higher education, like wealthy white students.

Attendees agreed that for black males and other underrepresented students, it's not enough to just get kids accepted to school. Real success is connecting them with the right schools so they matriculate and then graduate four years later. Carl Ahlgren, the director of college counseling at the Gilman School, a private, Baltimore, Maryland prep school for boys, said that these underrepresented, underprivileged students are not only uninformed about the college process, they're also "unambitious."

Although parents of these underrepresented students want their children to go to college, they don't know how to navigate the process. In turn, instead of reaching for the top-notch elite schools like Harvard, these kids sell themselves short and apply to colleges they're academically overqualified for. Settling for their local community college or state school ironically makes them less likely to graduate. What should high school and college counselors do? Ahlgren says, "Instead of talking those students down, we need to talk them up."

Intriguingly enough, on the flipside, Ahlgren shared that he has found "white, affluent applicants often need to lower their expectations about which colleges they can attend." Counselors should, of course, want every student to get into the best school possible—and to a school that's the right fit for them personally. But, Ahlgren's comment suggests that students from wealthier and whiter backgrounds need high school counselors and college admissions officers to expose them to more realistic options. Indeed, if counselors don't have honest conversations about grades and test scores—and simply go along with parent and student plans to apply to Harvard and Stanford, when a student really should be applying to Lake Forest College—that's ultimately just as much a disservice as underselling a minority student's ambitions.

photo (cc) via Flickr user US Embassy New Zealand

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