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Why the College Application Process is so Hard

As I’m watching my younger brother go through the often-dreaded process of applying for college, I’m reminded of the overwhelming feeling the process brings. If you’ve ever applied to college, you know that between – FAFSA, essays, letters of recommendation, and eventually choosing the college that fits you best – many students either drive themselves crazy or give up. I can’t remember the number of times I left my computer screen and cried in my bed from frustration. It was at those moments I thought I could go on without college. However, I made it through the process with some self-discipline and the encouragement of my parents, both of whom received their bachelor’s degree. While I was finished with my application process by December of my senior year, my younger brother has not started an application as of yet. While I am proud he has decided he wants to attend Columbia College, I was disappointed to learn last week that he had not even visited the school’s website for any information: nothing about deadlines, nothing about requirements and not even information about majors. While we’ve had arguments over his readiness for college, I recently stepped back and realized his problem is that of so many high school seniors.

I was shocked to learn that in late March 2007, while most students had made their final college decisions, only 1/3 of Chicago seniors had completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Anyone who wants financial aid need to fill out the FAFSA. FAFSA is open for application January 1and has limited resources of funding, causing late applicants to be less likely of receiving a Pell Grant which does not have to be repaid. The payoff for completing a FAFSA for Chicago students is huge: in 2007, over 75% of those who applied were eligible for a Pell Grant.

For many low income Black students in Chicago, it is likely they are first generation to attend college. Because of this, these students probably feel alone and lost in the college application process as their parents have no experience with applying for college and navigating the system of seeking financial aid.  However, students have on a daily basis contact with adults that have navigated the higher education system with success: their teachers. I believe it is the role of teachers to better prepare Chicago Public School juniors and seniors for the important steps leading up to college acceptance. According to the analysis from americanprogress.org, the most constant predictor of whether students took action toward college enrollment was whether the student’s school had a strong rate of college-going students. In a strong college expectation climate, teachers who report they’ve: urged students to plan to go to college, worked to ensure their preparedness, and supported the completion of the application, made a significant difference in students’ completion of the college application process. With this support from teachers, students were more like to plan to attend a 4-year school, apply, and if accepted, enrolled. Students who are on the borderline of college preparedness especially  need this support from an adult to help them through this process.

ACT scores are often used to determine college preparedness, or in the case of Black youth in Illinois, the lack thereof. Based on the composite ACT scores of  Illinois’ graduating class of 2011, 33% of White students met the college readiness benchmark score while only 4% of Black students met the benchmark score. In the Reading category, 61% of White students were reported to be ready for college reading compared to 21% of Black students. In the Math section, while 55% of Whites showed college preparedness, 13% of Blacks were reported as ready for college math. Trumping both races, 73% of Asians are reported to be ready for college math. These statistics are only on the status of Illinois juniors alone and I am curious to find data about the whole nation. In saying all of this, I hope readers who know a high school senior in this long and confusing process of applying to college, will provide the support they so obviously need in order to be successful.

As much as my brother grows frustrated with me over bringing up his application almost every time I see him, I know he’ll thank me one day – it may be in 10 years, but I’ll at least have the satisfaction of watching him enroll into Columbia College and begin his journey as a college student and graduate.