Recently, Washington University in St. Louis announced that it, like many other elite private institutions, will adopt a need-blind admissions policy. This means that future applicants will only be judged on their merits and not on their (or their family’s) ability to afford the $70,000 annual cost of tuition and room and board. 

Going need-blind is important. But if Wash U and other institutions are serious about their commitment to socioeconomic diversity and becoming a force for economic mobility, need-blind admissions is only the start.  Where someone attends college isn’t just a factor of the institution’s admissions policy, the entire college exploration, application, and admissions process is impacted by the resources available to students beginning well before they begin receiving glossy college brochures. 

I’m a proud alumnus of Wash U, but I’m also well aware that socioeconomic diversity is not currently one of the school’s many strengths. Only 13% of Wash U students admitted in 2021 qualify for federal Pell grants, compared to 34% of students nationally.  And a New York Times analysis in 2017 found that Wash U had three times as many students from families in the top 1% of income as from families in the bottom 50%.  So, while every institution can likely do more to support students from a range of economic backgrounds, perhaps no institution has more work to do than my alma mater. 

While I am excited that some universities care about expanding access to first-generation, low-income students, more support is needed to move from aspiration to reality. 

Research shows that the social networks individuals develop, such as their family, friends, and caring adults in their lives, play a huge role in postsecondary choices. A majority of postsecondary students say they sought guidance about their course of study from their informal network, making it the top resource for information about educational paths. And research shows that the zip code someone is born into significantly impacts the ways these networks develop-- and as a result, the type of information and advice would-be students get. 

According to the American School Counselor Association, only 1 in 5 high school students is enrolled in a school where there is a sufficient amount of school counselors.  Many states average between 400 and 500 students per counselor. These individuals can’t possibly give every student the attention to help with their college search.

That’s why college access mentors, individuals who help students match to institutions, navigate the application maze, and work through the financial aid process, are so crucial to helping higher education institutions make good on their promise of expanding opportunity.  

Take, for example, a promising, first-generation student from Arizona, where there is an average of one school counselor for every 848 students.  She and her family may have never heard of Washington University, a school far away, without the brand cache of Harvard or Yale, and with a high sticker price.  

Someone familiar with the college search, application, and financial aid process could help surface Wash U as a strong fit for a talented student. They could explain the role of institutional and federal financial aid, and why Wash U might actually be more affordable than other options, despite the high cost on paper.  But students who don’t have easy access to this knowledge through formal or informal networks risk being left behind. 

Mentors can also help students navigate the admissions process. 60% of the 1,795 spots in Wash U’s 2021 freshman class went to students who applied Early Decision. That leaves only 40% of spots for students who either don’t know about early decision or who are worried about committing to one institution because they want to compare financial aid offers from multiple schools.  This can put students, particularly those who are first generation. from less-resourced high schools, or who are more concerned about cost, at a disadvantage. 

An elite education shouldn’t just be for the 1%.  Making this a reality will take more than just moving beyond a paradigm where admissions officials can actively discriminate based on family income.  College can be a powerful lever for economic mobility, but only if we truly open the doors. 

Michael J. Carter is Founder and CEO for Strive for College. Strive for College is an American nonprofit dedicated to "alleviating inequity in access to higher education". Strive provides high school students with free, online mentoring and guidance with college applications.