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ND low-income students reflect on admission experience

| Friday, April 26, 2019

While the recent college admissions scandal — permeating national news and implicating many well-known celebrities  has sparked outrage among Americans, it has also highlighted unfair advantages wealthy students gained in the college admissions process, especially to highly ranked universities. 

In recent years, many colleges and universities have committed to enrolling more low-income students by increasing the number of Pell Grant students on their campuses, implementing summer bridge programs and reaching out to low-income communities, among a number of other approaches. However, many low-income students say the application process itself serves as a significant barrier. 

In interviews with The Observer, two Notre Dame students from low-income households shared their experiences with the college admissions process, noting the obstacles they faced along the way.

Rathin Kacham, senior

Rathin Kacham, a DACA recipient, first-generation and low-income student, said he applied to over 30 colleges and universities his senior year of high school. He knew he would not qualify for federal aid because of his undocumented status at the time, so he was forced to apply to a slew of schools in hopes he would be accepted somewhere and receive financial aid, he said.

Kacham said his underfunded high school rarely sent students out of state for college, and many kids did not proceed to higher education at all. At the time, his guidance counselors knew little about his situation, so Kacham said he tackled the admissions process alone, calling individual universities and researching programs intended for low-income students.

“I had this challenge I had no control over,” Kacham said.

By the time regular decisions were announced that spring, Kacham said he had been wait-listed or rejected to the majority of schools which he applied, despite having a 4.0 GPA and a high ACT score.

“I got into one school, I think it was [University of Texas] Dallas, where I would’ve gotten a partial scholarship, and that was honestly where I thought I was going for the longest time,” he said. “Then I checked my spam folder and Notre Dame and had sent me an acceptance letter and I ended up here.”

Jazie Valenzo, junior

Jazie Valenzo was born in Mexico, but his family moved to Wilmington, Delaware when he was 1 year old, he said. Valenzo said his parents wanted to immigrate to America in order to escape family tensions back in Mexico, but when they arrived, both of his parents were forced to work multiple jobs in order to support their family of five. After attending elementary and middle school in the inner city of Wilmington, Valenzo was accepted at Salesianum School — an all-boys private Catholic high school — on financial aid.

“I did well my freshman year, and the guidance counselors kind of noticed that — they really wanted to get me on the right track, especially as an individual coming from my kind of background and area, [that] wasn’t too common,” Valenzo said.

Valenzo said he was not able to visit any of the schools he applied to because his family couldn’t afford to travel, but after researching a number of schools online, he decided to rank Notre Dame in his top three schools on his QuestBridge application.

“I remember coming back from track practice and looking at my phone, because I knew when they were going to release the decisions to see if you were accepted to one of the universities that you put on your list,” Valenzo said. “And I clicked on the link and the first thing I read is ‘Congratulations,’ and then the following line, ‘You’ve been accepted to the University of Notre Dame,’ and it was fantastic. I went home and I cried, and I thought, ‘All my work has kind of paid off.’”

Analyzing admissions

Don Bishop, vice president of undergraduate enrollment, said about 12 to 13 percent of Notre Dame undergraduate students currently live in households earning under $65,000 per year, but admissions is working to increase that percentage by reaching out to underserved high schools and working with organizations including the American Talent Initiative, Cristo Rey, KIPP and QuestBridge.

“Notre Dame needs to be in all these communities recruiting because we want the leaders of those communities to be, at least some of them, [from] Notre Dame,” Bishop said. “And I think it becomes a better world in our mind when we are more a part of all those worlds.”

Although admissions faculty and staff were not implicated in the cheating scandal, Bishop said he sees the scandal as an opportunity for Notre Dame to articulate exactly how it approaches admission decisions and why he believes their approach is most effective.

“I think the public feels outrage because there are some very high-end schools involved in the scandal, and it’s migrated from the scandal to the whole conversation about influence, and in both of those groups people feel betrayed by the top colleges,” Bishop said.

Bishop said the Notre Dame admissions department evaluates applicants in the context of their environment, taking socioeconomic background into account to put underserved students and more affluent students on an equal playing field.

“Ultimately, we do not discount a top-performing student at a pretty humble American high school who’s done their very best and that [is] pretty much at the top of the class … we know that if you’re in the top 5% in your socioeconomic group on test scores — let’s say that’s a 1340 — and top 5% for the ‘average kid at Notre Dame’ socioeconomic group in the applicant pool … might be 1480,” Bishop said. “We might look at that and say, ‘1340 actually compares reasonably to 1480 for a student from a much more advantaged background who’s had more access to tutoring,’” Bishop said.

During the 2017-2018 admissions cycle, the College Board implemented the Environmental Context Dashboard, ”a data-driven tool used to measure educational disadvantages based on students’ environments,” according to the website. Notre Dame was one of the 15 schools that agreed to test the tool in its pilot year, Bishop said.

Although many universities’ increasing commitment to holistic admissions and tools like the ECD have worked to diminish the disadvantages first-generation and low-income students often face, the admissions scandal has called for colleges to more forcefully examine the inequities that exist within the system, Bishop said.

Although both Kacham and Valenzo made it to college, many high-achieving, low-income, DACA and first-generation students across the nation struggle to progress, which makes the college admissions scandal particularly disheartening, Valenzo said.

“There are a lot of kids in the US — across the world — that would kill for an education, to be able to be someone better and learn more and be able to apply themselves and be better for it, but they can’t. They don’t have the necessary resources for it,” he said. “Then, you have this opposite side of the spectrum where you have people that do have such resources and they’re not even doing it right.”

Kacham said the admissions scandal speaks to bigger, institutional problems within education, where wealthy parents can pay to secure admission even if their child is unqualified, while poorer, high-achieving students struggle to get by.

“I want [high-income families] to realize that they’ve been benefiting from a system that was designed to benefit people like them, [and] to some extent, mostly still benefits them,” Kacham said.

To bridge the differences between high-income and low-income students, Kacham said he would ask students to start by simply being kind.

“Really try to think about what a person is going through and what you might have to sacrifice in order to make their life better,” Kacham said. “Compassion is sacrifice, it’s changing your lifestyle to know the person next to you can be happier.”

Valenzo said he urges students to avoid being judgmental and instead engage in deeper conversations regarding differences in lifestyle, class and race.

“Be open to people — be open to knowing them and their stories,” he said.

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