Jeremy Raff

Jeremy Raff, op-ed columnist Raff is coordinator of college and career services at the School District of Lancaster and a board member of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Scholarship Fund.

To those who work helping high school students access higher education, the college admissions scandal is hardly a surprise. The road to higher education is paved with privilege.

Every year, I am frustrated watching incredible students who work hard in high school get accepted into college and then struggle to cover the cost of attendance. Many schools, even highly selective ones, provide significant need-based aid, but these remain a haven for wealthy students. According to the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, only 17 percent of first-time, full-time students in the nation’s 193 most selective colleges receive federal Pell Grants that help cover educational costs. Further, 72 percent of enrollment at these same schools is from the wealthiest 1 percent of the population.

In reality, wealthy parents do not need to buy their children spots in illicit ways. Legacy admissions, the ability to pay full tuition price and powerful personal networks go a long way to make attending a dream school reality for the upper class.

The School District of Lancaster is proud that local partners are stepping up. Franklin & Marshall College is a pioneer in promoting access to highly selective schools for low-income students, offering need-based aid to any student who qualifies. Millersville University is a long-term partner of School District of Lancaster through the Lancaster Partnership Program, which provides scholarships to dozens of McCaskey graduates every year. Thaddeus Stevens is renowned for its Stevens Grant, which enables low-income students from across Pennsylvania to earn an associate’s degree with little to no debt.

Organizations like the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Scholarship Committee Fund (on whose board I serve) and the Lancaster Education Foundation provide hundreds of thousands of dollars in private scholarships to School District of Lancaster students every year. A partnership with Willow Valley Communities helps to cover our students’ tuition and housing deposits.

The School District of Lancaster invests in year-round college and career services, because we know students need support to begin and complete their college journey. Our staff works with high school counselors to guide students and support them during the summer as they transition to college. A partnership with Pennsylvania Advising Corps provides two college advisers to work with McCaskey high school students as they plan for their future.

On their own, however, these solutions are not sufficient. Even with this support, students still struggle. A large number of students experience “summer melt”: committing to attend college but failing to enroll in the fall. The reasons are primarily financial. Nationally, the summer melt rate runs as high as 40 percent of students.

The good news is, solutions are within our reach to address these inequities. The National College Access Network, an organization to which School District of Lancaster belongs, offers two straightforward solutions. First, Congress should increase the Pell Grant award. At its peak in 1975-76, it covered more than 75 percent of the cost of tuition. Today, it covers only 30 percent. This is woefully inadequate to cover the cost of higher education, even at our state’s many public institutions.

Secondly, fix the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The application, needlessly complicated, is the bane of every parent helping a child apply for college. Bipartisan support has emerged to update the application and make it easier to submit. Reducing this burden will enable counselors and college advisers to spend less time on paperwork and more time helping students plan for their future.

While these changes are certainly not comprehensive, they can make a positive impact for low-income students. They deserve the same opportunity at success as their wealthier peers.

Jeremy Raff is coordinator of college and career services at the School District of Lancaster and a board member of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Scholarship Fund.