Higher Achievement Feature in DiversityIS: Level the Admissions Playing Field

Independent Schools Address Financial and Institutional Barriers to Level the Admissions Playing Field

By: Mariah Stewart
May 1, 2019

“The playing field is not fair,”  William Singer, the alleged mastermind behind the recent college admissions scandal notably said during a recorded phone call quoted in a criminal complaint.

Singer, who pleaded guilty in March to helping affluent parents fraudulently get their children into elite colleges, wasn’t wrong about his philosophy that admissions are not always fair. Wealthy families had figured out how to shortcut admissions systems, leaving kids from lower-income households behind. 

While the admissions scandal unfolds in the realm of higher education, students from lower socioeconomic statuses (SES) still struggle to gain access to independent schools. Lack of awareness, finances, test preparation, and transportation are the main contributors that keep many of them out. 

To level the playing field for low-income students, K-12 independent schools throughout the country have used supplemental academic enrichment initiatives for decades. The programs have proven successful in recruiting, preparing students, and raising awareness, but there is still work to be done.

A Better Chance, an educational access program that works with children grades 6-12, was founded by independent schools. The organization serves more than 14,000 student alumni. It works with 2,200 students and more than 300 schools, only 20 of which are public.

“I would love to think that programs like ours are temporary,” says Sandra Timmons, president of A Better Chance. “When we can say that independent schools are fully integrated, reflect our population, and students are achieving at the same rates — when we can say that, we can say there’s no more need for A Better Chance. It will be a celebration.”

A recent study on student test scores in reading, math, and science published by Education Next found the achievement gap between wealthy and low-income students in the United States has barely changed in 50 years. The disparity between the top and bottom quartiles of socioeconomic distribution decreased by only 12.5 percent from 1954 to 2001.

“The stubborn endurance of achievement inequalities suggests the need to reconsider policies and practices aimed at shrinking the gap,” the researchers state.  The way to narrow the achievement disparity is through family and school intervention, according to the study’s authors. 

Timmons says A Better Chance ultimately envisions a public school system that enables every child to live their best possible life, but “that system right now is somewhat broken,” Timmons says, which is why independent schools are important. A Better Chance is a part of a broad mosaic of programs and interventions that are designed to keep people from failing to achieve their own potential, she adds.

Perception of independent institutions in the community is also important, says Anne Stavney, head of school at Blake School in Hopkins, Minn. If youth and their families don’t feel welcome in these schools, they might not even consider the possibility of attending. Coming to community events to raise awareness instead of forcing students to visit the school minimizes the intimidation factor; these events are also more accessible than the traditional private school fair.

“We talk about diversity being essential to academic excellence,” Stavney says. “Socioeconomic diversity is just as critical, and it has been the hardest for our communities, or at least Blake [School], to talk about because Americans don’t talk about class very well. It’s so important that we bring families who receive financial assistance into the conversation.”

Independent school leaders say the main barrier for low-SES student entry is cost, even when comprehensive financial aid and scholarships are available. Some schools have launched research committees to determine the added costs of education, such as laptops, sports equipment, and field trips. Many offer supplemental financial aid, which covers items like books and lunches. 

A financial aid calculator tool on Blake School’s website is the most visited page on the site, according to Stavney. For a household with an annual income less than $50,000, tuition per school year is approximately $1,500 for one child to attend Blake lower school, according to the estimator.

Myra McGovern, vice president of media at the National Association of Independent Schools, says families with financial constraints should consider applying to multiple schools because different financial aid packages could be available.

“Some schools may have the ability to offer any student who applies unlimited financial aid or whatever their need is, but most schools have some restrictions,” McGovern says.  “Some schools offer fewer awards of a larger amount. Other schools want to do a greater number of awards or maybe smaller in financial value.”

Institutional Barriers

Behind the financial barriers are systemic issues that limit the integration of different social classes. Lynsey Jeffries, CEO at enrichment program Higher Achievement, says academic preparedness for admissions exams is frequently a gatekeeper for students. 

“There are often justice issues related to those admissions exams,” Jeffries says. “Unfortunately, too many students that could potentially thrive at independent schools can’t get in because of the admissions exams. Because of the schools, they’ve gone to and the way the tests are written, [these factors] really do prevent them from scoring high.”

Higher Achievement recognizes the flawed system, according to Jeffries. Depending on the students’ scores, the organization advises which schools to consider and also advocates for students with the admissions process. Practice admittance tests are usually available for free online to download.

For many students, independent institutions are far from their home, and for families who don’t have cars, public transportation becomes a necessity.  “There are many stories of students traveling 90 minutes to two hours to get to school,” Jeffries says. Some schools have implemented a bus system for these reasons.

Language barriers also slow the admissions process. St. John’s School in Houston is one that accommodates students and families facing this issue. If the school anticipates there will be a language barrier at a special event or admissions interview, leaders will make sure personnel are available to provide interpretation assistance. 

“We have targeted and allocated resources so that we can be able to better communicate with our potential constituents, and that has been very helpful,” said Mark Desjardins, St. John’s headmaster.

Above all, it’s vital that school leaders be prepared, mindful, and intentional about the transition for lower SES students into their institution. Karen Bradberry, director of equity and inclusion at Greenhill School in Addison, Texas, says normalizing both financial aid and learning differences for them is key.

“If we’re ever going to diversify our community, then we can’t use the monocultural approach that we tend to use,” Bradberry says. When schools have trouble diversifying class, the processes geared toward a single type of student are often to blame.

“It’s really about breaking private schools out of the White model and cultural values that our schools were built on. It’s a hard thing to hear, but it’s the truth,” Bradberry says. “The beauty of diversity is leveraging all of those other cultural attributes to become smarter, better, and even more human.” 

Bradberry says if an inclusive framework that recognizes institutional barriers isn’t part of the admissions process, then any gains in diversity won’t stick. 

School leaders should also consider implementing or partnering with enrichment programs. When Frank Steel moved from Philadelphia to Miami in 2014 to be head of school at Gulliver School, there was no such program in place. So, he established one. “There’s a whole system within independent schools that if you don’t understand, you won’t be prepared for it,” Steel says, referencing institutional barriers.

Gulliver School partnered with enrichment program Breakthrough Collaborative and has maintained a beneficial relationship since. Breakthrough Collaborative serves 10,000 scholars from under-resourced communities across the country. Those who finish the program are significantly more likely to complete a four-year higher education degree within six years when compared with the average population, regardless of socioeconomic background, according to CEO Elissa Vanaver.

There’s a story they tell in Miami, according to Steel, about a little boy who throws starfish back into the ocean. As he throws the starfish into the ocean, a little girl asks why he bothers, telling him that it’s not going to make a difference because he couldn’t possibly save them all. The boy responds, “I made a difference to that one.”

“If we can continue to widen the resources for students,” Steel says, “then we can make a difference.”