Parents4Parents: Application Tips for Parents of Low-Income, FirstGen Students - ASK ME ANYTHING!

Nancy is the mother of two boys, a college junior and a high school junior. She has volunteered for the last 10 years for the College Success Foundation reviewing applications for scholarships for underserved low-income students as well as assisting in application fairs aimed at high-achieving first-generation applicants. She has been an alumni interviewer for Yale for more than 25 years in the US and France and represented Yale at college fairs.

@AfroPuffMom is on her third career: first as a professor, 2nd in legal field and currently an independent education consultant.

She can help answer your questions about how to support your child in applying to college. How to start the process, deciphering the buzz words of “holistic admissions” “demonstrated interest” and “test aware, ” creating timelines that work for the family. Ask her anything!


Are you a parent who accumulated expertise with certain schools or topics (e.g. financial aid, FAFSA, essay writing, test prep, etc.)? Do you have a unique story you want to share to help and inspire other parents? If so and want to be part of our Parents4Parents initiative send me a private message and we’ll connect on next steps.

What are the most common hurdles that you have seen that first-generation-to-college students tend to face in applying to and attending college?

I think that low-income and first generation are often put together in people’s minds. But some low income parents have advanced degrees. And some first generation students have wealthy parents. So I would just like to clarify this offer of help.

Often guidance counselors do not understand that elite colleges can be more affordable than state schools. Or that merit may be available. So the main advice I would have is to consider the best school academically and look into affordability.

Of course programs like Questbridge (and apparently the College Success Foundation) are enormously helpful.

College Confidential may have a high proportion of higher income and/or degreed parents so this thread seems kind of quiet. My family fits the demographic for the thread and all I can say is that they went to the best colleges possible for them, no thanks to guidance counselors!

Many stories on these forums suggest that many guidance counselors typically focus on getting students admitted to colleges, not on helping them afford it. But then individualized advice would need some family financial information that many are understandably reluctant to have guidance counselors know. However, even generic stuff like “run the net price calculator on each college you are considering” seems to be absent.

While some elite schools may be more affordable than some state schools for some students, few students (particularly those from low income families) get into elite schools, so they cannot be relied on as a source of college affordability.

@AfroPuffMom, not only have you been in varied careers, but you may have the coolest username on all of College Confidential (at least from my point of view)…

I have a family member who has spent half of their long career in College Access in Washington DC and I have heard many of the hardships (along with being a low income student myself many years ago), so thank you for sharing your expertise on CC. My question for you is how do you expect the world’s current status (Covid-19) to affect low income and 1st generation students applying to college now? What are the most common mistakes that you see when reviewing college and scholarship applications for students?

Thanks so much for the compliment. I’m very concerned in hearing that schools will be increasing number of students admitted under ED which negatively impacts 1st gen and low income students.
Parents please make sure your student has an “appropriate” email address. I’ve seen too many with questionable ones like HOTGUY20910. I always suggest they can create a new one with FIRSTNAMELASTNAME_gradclass.

@ucbalumnus One of the biggest hurdles I have seen is starting to think about college late in their HS career and thus not maximizing academic opportunities. I’ve had a number of students who wanted to major in something that required they complete AT LEAST pre-calculus. The kids were all very good at math but in MS they were not encouraged to take the “harder” math courses, so now in HS they are shut out of certain majors. Another hurdle is students not presenting themselves completely in the application. By this I mean they think the short answer questions are not important so they don’t put in thought into the answers. Every single part of the application is important for showcasing all of a student’s strengths and they should make sure to take advantage of every opportunity.

I also think a lot of students think they need to have their recommenders be the teachers in which they received A’s, instead of getting the teachers who know them the best. Letters of recommendations give AO’s insight into how the student thinks and engages with others. So sometimes that class where you didn’t start out with an A but worked your tail off to get one in the last semester says more about how you will thrive and work hard in college then the class where you got the A but did not engage.

@ChangeTheGame Thanks so much for the compliment. I’m very concerned in hearing that schools will be increasing number of students admitted under ED which negatively impacts 1st gen and low income students.
Parents please make sure your student has an “appropriate” email address. I’ve seen too many with questionable ones like HOTGUY20910. I always suggest they can create a new one with FIRSTNAMELASTNAME_gradclass.

@compmom Yes, many HS counselors in public schools believe their job is to help kids get into state schools and do not even offer ANY help for private or out-of-state schools.

In my experience the low income parents with advanced degrees received them in other countries, so they have no understanding of applying to US colleges and universities. The process in this country is not transparent.

College Success Foundation is wonderful because they start working with kids earlier in HS. They provide mentorship, tutoring and excellent summer opportunities to

I know plenty of PhD’s received in the US who would qualify for low income! There will only be more following cuts due to COVID and academic jobs have gone down in the liberal arts anyway. Adjuncts may qualify for food stamps…

@compmom I agree that a lot of colleges will go out of business and many more layoffs are coming.

@AfroPuffMom , in your experience, are there any colleges, aside from instate public universities, that provide significant FinAid to low-income first-gen students who are not academic superstars? Something I noticed while helping my son and a couple of other kids this past year was that there isn’t a good single resource for low-income students with average grades/standardized test scores.

All the schools listed as full-need-met options are top 40 national universities and top-30 LACs, similar to those quoted above. During my search, I discovered there were some schools (LaSalle, UNM, Berea are some examples) that provided meaningful significant aid to low-income students who had good-but-not-perfect stats.

Is there any good accepted strategy for a low-income 3.5 GPA, 1100-1250 SAT student? Some resources pointed to schools that offered “significant” aid, but for a truly lower-income family, reducing the COA from $55K to $20K is not a game changer. Those resources were more geared toward upper-middle class families seeking aid.

I know there are no guarantees in this academic range for fuller-need-met aid, but which schools offer better odds than the rest? Assuming in-state publics are already safety options, where should these students aim?

@EconPop You are absolutely right that information is hard to find and changes from year to year. Sadly I cannot give you a list of schools to consider.

Louisville is good: https://louisville.edu/admissions/cost-aid/scholarships/out-of-state-scholarships
Arizona can be a bargain for some kids, https://financialaid.arizona.edu/types-of-aid/scholarships/incoming-transfer
Alabama has some interesting scholarships which sometimes fit the bill: https://scholarships.ua.edu/freshman/diversity-merit-scholarship/

The problem will be that with Covid-related challenges, schools will be offering less aid to strong, but not phenomenal candidates. I heard from an AO at GW recently and they are making cuts elsewhere in the university to try to keep need at same level this year, but they are the only school where I have heard that.
I also suggest students look at exchange programs whereby you can get in-state tuition at out-of-state schools depending on your major. This has worked for many of my students: https://www.sreb.org/academic-common-market

@AfroPuffMom Thanks for doing this! One thing that I have seen at UCLA is while there is a large proportion of students on pell grants and other forms of financial aid, many of the classroom activities, extracurriculars, social scene, and internship opportunities on campus favor students with more affluent backgrounds. What do you thing public schools can do to help equalize the playing field for students in regards to the overall on campus experience?

@10s4life can you be more specific? I understand that internships are not paid, so students who have jobs to help support themselves or others are at a disadvantage. And socially it is tough to go out to eat or drink with friends. Situations come up where a more affluent friend may suggest a trip during a school break, when the lower income person cannot afford it. Etc.

But I am curious about classroom activities and extracurriculars that may favor more affluent students. Are you referring to differences in background that might make these activities harder to access once in college?

Hi, I won’t try to replicate the fine advice from the parents here, but I want to make a plug for a College Program offered by the federal government called Student Support Services, part of the TRiO program of educational support. (Not to be confused with any college’s individual Support Services.)

SSS is a federal support program for first gen and/or low income students. In the program where I was a counselor for ten years, most students were both. Here’s their website: https://www2.ed.gov/programs/triostudsupp/index.html

Services vary by college, but most offer individualized tutoring, counseling and coaching, FA advice, academic success workshops, and often, some scholarship support. Their purpose is to increase retention and graduation for the targeted population. Students are admitted by the school they are attending by applying after they start there, not during application time.

In my experience, and statistics at my school showed it, the program made a huge difference and graduated students at a higher rate than the overall college graduation rate. So I heartily recommend it.

@compmom A lot of internships are paid but for that I guess I am referring to the existing network some students may have. But yeah I think grabbing drinks and spring break trips are some of the obvious ones (including Greek life). To answer your question about what I meant by classroom activities and extracurriculars, a lot of those cost money and there’s some instances like a prof having an extra credit trip to a museum that would require travel by car and the admission for it isn’t free/low cost. Those sorts of things happen often and I was interested what @AfroPuffMom thinks schools could do better to equalize things.

@10s4life it is going to take leadership and money. By leadership I mean these institutions must commit to putting into place procedures that help all students. Schools should set-aside funding for those on financial aid for block grants so they can take unpaid summer internships or study abroad. I personally think all Greek life should be banned because racism, classism and sexism are so embedded in most of the traditions. Whatever community service they provide can be accomplished outside of Greek life.

Heads of departments should discourage professors from having any extra credit assignments that costs more than 10 dollars unless they have a scholarship kitty for students. There should also be discussions about changing the language around office hours. So many first-gen students don’t really understand how important office hours can be for academic success. Many of them have told me, they thought office hours were like going to the principal’s office: it was only for “bad kids.” In general I think people at PWI don’t always understand the terminology they use is not known by all of their students. I think public schools have a lot of support mechanisms in place but they do a poor job of advertising them.

Lastly, first-years should get Big Sibs/Mentors they can turn to for advice. The program has been very successful at private colleges and I think public schools should implement as well. Students are matched with people from their dorm and also may have another one who matches a student’s race, sexual orientation or ethnicity.

We never ran into a problem with extracurriculars or classroom activities at college. The worst cases of this type of thing happen in pubic schools with class trips, or the French class going to France etc. all of which I objected to at School Committee meetings !

Thank you @AfroPuffMom for your time. We have highly gifted DS who is currently a sophomore at a very challenging high school where many are dual enrolled at our local university. He completed AP Calc BC and AP Physics C as a freshman and received 5s on both APs, and is also very strong in English/humanities. He received a 1560 on his SAT in 7th grade (talent search).

The problem is that he is hugely lacking in ECs partly because of the rigor of his high school and his personality, very motivated and driven student but modest and doesn’t seek out leadership opportunities. We are very concerned for his college prospects in his likely major, CS. As I am a high school drop out and my husband also did not attend any college, we feel completely lost and clueless about how help our independent kid. We are not low income but due to employment issues in the past, our only source to pay for college would be out of our modest retirement accounts.

What are the chances of a student with this type of profile (low EC activity) and getting into good CS schools with merit aid and are there any resources for parents such as ourselves for guidance? Thank you!