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Applying to college? Know what road to travel

National Public Radio

The tangled and complex college admissions process can be influenced by family income, with lower-income families often succumbing to quick offers of admisssions and financial help, on the spot, at a college fair. A University at Buffalo researcher has been looking into how admissions work, to make the best decisions.

Megan Holland is a sociologist and a research assistant professor in educational leadership and policy in the UB Graduate School of Education. She has a book coming out early next year, looking at the divergent paths to college. It looks at the way race, class and inequality affect the college process, from looking at where to go to how to pay the bill.

She says a major problem is that many students and many families don't have the knowledge base of how it all works, growing more complex by the year. Holland says some students attend an event where a college offers immediate admission and possibly some financial aid.

"They feel happy, excited that they got into a college, but they're making this decision to apply to a college on the spot, without any sort of research, when they don't know the difference between a two and a four-year or how much a private college is versus a public college costs," Holland says. "This type of marketing by a college is influencing student's applications and potentially where they attend."

Holland says it's especially hard in families with no history of higher education.

"The process of applying to college and particularly the less resources you have, the more complex the process can be," Holland says. "It's daunting - and to ask someone who has no experience and the parents have no experience with this to, now, suddenly deal with all this bureaucracy, it's a lot to ask of a 17-18-year old, regardless of the resources that they have."

Holland says parents want their kids to go to college.

"Whether they've gone to college or not, and that's kind of what we as a society have been pushing on parents, on students: You need to go to college. You need to go to college," Holland says. "We have been very successful as a society in convincing everyone they need to go to college and many students want to fulfill that for their parents, for themselves. They just don't understand how to get there and they don't have the help and the information that they need."

Holland says her research shows the more education parents have, the more kids apply to highly competitive  schools. There's a national problem of kids from low-income families not applying to high-level schools because they aren't sure they can get in or pay for it, when they could get in based on academic performance and get aid, a problem called undermatching.

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