Many students struggle to navigate college admissions and lack of transparency around financial aid

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Grace Marion

Students moderate a Career Insights Panel on on June 12 at CampCollege in Jackson.

Katia Sutton returns home from school each day only to work more. She spends three hours studying practice ACT problems, and then a few more researching scholarships and grants that might help her attend college one day.

Although Sutton takes an elective ACT preparation class in high school, she’s confronted with the reality that not all Mississippi schools have the resources and systems in place to help students maximize their results on the high stakes exam – higher scores open doors to colleges and scholarships.

“In high school, if you come to class, you can graduate,” Sutton said. “[In] my junior and senior seminars in my school, they teach us like … don’t do drugs, don’t drink and stuff like that,” Sutton said. “That really doesn’t prepare me for college.”

The 16-year-old has enough class credits to graduate a year early from Terry High School. When she can, Sutton attends free ACT preparation classes provided by the Get2College program. The program, which provides services to help students navigate the college admissions process, focuses its outreach on “students that have historically been underserved, – low income, first generation or students of color,” said Anne Hendrick, director of Get2College. Hendrick says 80 percent of the students who participate in their programs fit this criteria.

Many students that come through their doors don’t know what financial aid options are available. For example, they may be eligible for the Pell Grant, which can provide them with up to $6,195 per year. If a Pell eligible student also scores a 20 on the ACT and has a 2.5 GPA they can also get the state’s Help Grant, but many students don’t know about it.

“It’s just the simple things to us that they have no idea about,” Assistant Director of Get2College and head of the Camp College program Daniela Griffin said. “It’s like you can definitely go to school for free, but if we weren’t here to tell you about this opportunity, then you just wouldn’t.”

A college education is for many the best path to gaining stable employment. Over 95 percent of jobs created nationally since the 2008 recession have gone to applicants with at least some college education, according to a 2016 Georgetown study. Only about 21 percent of Mississippians have a college degree, according to the 2017 census.

Hendrick, attributes some of the issues around college preparation to high school counselors being more focused on getting students to graduate, rather than setting them up for successful futures.

“Until [schools] are accountable for the number of kids that go to college, it’s just not going to be their day-to-day worry,” Hendrick said.

For students like Sutton, higher accountability standards might not help. Educators say the lower scores are oftentimes used to financially penalize schools, which does nothing to address the multitude of community issues that facilitate the failing academic environments.

“If the idea is that we’re going to begin to measure which high schools and which school districts have the largest number of college enrollments, we’re putting all of the burden on the schools and none of the burden on why those communities are disadvantaged in the first place,” University of Mississippi sociology professor James Thomas said.

Thirty eight colleges in the United States have more students from families within the top 1 percent of earners than they do of the bottom 60 percent, according to one study conducted under Harvard University.

That’s not the case for Mississippi colleges and universities. For example, 2.1 percent of the student population at Mississippi State University are from families in the top 1 percent, while 35.9 percent of students are in the bottom 60 percent and 5.7 percent of the University of Mississippi’s student body is from the top 1 percent, while 27.8 are from the bottom 60 percent.

The gap between schools like Sutton’s – which consistently receives low evaluations from the state – and higher scoring schools can often be correlated with a combination of what sociologists like Thomas call cultural and social capital.

“It’s not just that [higher ranked school districts] have economic capital, but they have knowledge and information of the institutions they’re trying to enter and then they also have knowledge and information of how to move up one within those institutions once they get there,” Thomas said. “Less resourced communities don’t have as many opportunities to gain that kind of knowledge and information.”

Disadvantages like these, according to Thomas, are in part what have led to a disproportion of socioeconomic backgrounds among college students as compared to the general population.

The Woodward Hines Education Foundation’s Get2College program is just one example of efforts to address the area of college prep. The program hosted Camp College at three locations across the state recently, preparing rising seniors like Sutton for the college application season.

At CampCollege in Jackson, 35 high schoolers participated in a mock college admissions exercise.  They were asked whether a student with a low GPA and test scores, but had the last name “Trump,” and whose family had recently made a large donation to the school, would be admitted to a prestigious college. When the students chanted “no” in response, program volunteers were quick to differ. This exercise was added to the program because of the recent college admissions scandal, which demonstrated to many the reality of how wealthy families are able to get low-scoring students into high-end colleges.

“This is just the grim reality of the situation,” Hendrick said. “They need to know.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated that Katia Sutton attends F-rated schools. However, Terry High School, where Sutton attends, is a B-rated school. The Hinds County School District, where Terry High is located, is rated a C. We apologize for the error.