To Rashel Mejia, CC ’22, who grew up in the Bronx and went to high school just 20 minutes away from Morningside Heights, Columbia’s campus seemed insurmountably distant.
“This was a reach school, kind of dream,” she said.
Columbia held its first information session at Mejia’s high school, Mott Hall V—which is in the Bronx—during her senior year. She said that the information session changed her outlook—for the first time in her college application process, it encouraged her to see Columbia as a real possibility.
“The information session gave me more confidence that I could afford going here,” she said. “It gave me more confidence to apply as well—they were coming to my school; it made me think, ‘Oh, they know of my school.’”
Increasing socioeconomic diversity at Columbia requires better recruitment outreach to low-income students, who face even more barriers in the hyper-competitive college process than their peers.
Not all high schools are created equal, and New York City’s school system is especially stratified. Public high schools are racially and socioeconomically segregated—at the city’s high-performing schools, support is readily available for students applying to Ivy League schools.
But without outreach or any point of contact at Columbia, even the most high-achieving students at traditional public schools may not apply. Interviews with over three dozen students and guidance counselors who work at or went to high school in New York City suggest that Columbia can seem distant and, in many cases, does not hold information sessions despite requests from traditional public schools in its own backyard and the University’s nationwide outreach.
While Columbia has a robust financial aid program—making it a cheaper option than state schools for many low-income students—those students are often unaware of available aid until they encounter admissions materials directly.
While Columbia touts a commitment to socioeconomic diversity, a Spectator analysis last spring revealed that the University’s socioeconomic diversity has stagnated over the past 10 years. Though close to 50 percent of Columbia College and School of Engineering and Applied Science students receive financial aid, Columbia continues to accept more students from the top one percent of America’s income levels than from the bottom 20 percent.
Just showing up to a high school—even by sending a Columbia student, if not an admissions representative—can make the University seem infinitely more attainable to qualified, high-performing students who see it as a non-option.
According to Dean of Admissions Jessica Marinaccio, Columbia has partnerships with over 170 community organizations that work in various ways to increase college access for low-income and first generation students.
However, Marinaccio made a distinction between these programs—which are meant to serve the community and are not targeted toward making students apply to Columbia specifically—and the University’s own recruitment visits.
“High school visits are more talking about Columbia in particular [for] students who may be competitive for our process... so we do go through a process of looking at public high schools and identifying those [where] students would likely be prepared to be competitive within our admissions process,” she said. “Anyone who does not fall in that category we'd definitely serve in the access [programs], but when we are actually sitting in high schools and talking to students we do tend to focus our efforts on those that would be most competitive in that way.”
Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and expert on education and equal opportunity, believes that admissions officers need to think about recruiting talented low-income students the way they think about recruiting talented athletes.
“Try to go out and identify them: seek out students whose academic records, including SAT/ACT scores and grades, suggest they’ve beaten the odds. Contact them by email, texts, and phone calls and let them know that Columbia can provide substantial financial aid. Then actively woo them, just as universities woo prized athletes,” he said.
One of the most direct ways to do this is by turning to high schools in Columbia's vicinity in New York City, where the University can most readily send representatives or establish relationships with guidance counselors to recruit even more local students than it already does.
Of the 30 New York City public high school guidance counselors interviewed by Spectator, 22 said they did not recall Columbia holding an information session at their school in the past year. All of the counselors contacted work at high schools with at least 1,000 students, and most had over 2,000 students.
Many of these counselors also said that their efforts to establish a relationship with Columbia’s admissions officers had consistently proven unsuccessful.
Barbara Tolas, a guidance counselor from James Madison High School in Brooklyn, said she invites Columbia to her college fair every year, but it has never come. She said that no student from James Madison has been admitted to Columbia since 2013, though students have been accepted more recently to Harvard and Princeton.
Danielle Sibelman, a guidance counselor for 600 seniors at William Cullen Bryant High School in Queens, said she sent Columbia a personalized email in the hopes that they would attend the school’s college fair. She said she never heard back.
Guidance counselor Ramon Canela, who works at Newtown High School in Queens, said he similarly used to regularly invite Columbia representatives, but never received a response.
“We never got a response, so we kind of just stopped reaching out,” Canela said. “We figured that recruitment here was not something they would do.”
At schools where the majority of students are low-income and first generation, the burden of properly informing students about the requirements for college applications falls solely to guidance counselors in lieu of outreach from colleges themselves.
Roger Lehecka, CC ’67 and GSAS ’74, helped found Columbia’s Double Discovery Center in 1965 in an effort to increase the high school graduation rate and college enrollment of low-income and first-generation students in upper Manhattan. Lehecka pointed out that guidance counselors at the city’s public high schools are often unequipped to inform students about things like financial aid and requirements for elite schools like Columbia.
“In a given day, the first thing [guidance counselors] are concerned about is misbehavior in the schools, [truancy], students who have emotional problems, students who have been acting out in class … discipline issues,” Lehecka said. “The reality is that's what a guidance counselor is ... A lot of them are wonderful people, but they don't even have the time to learn what you need to know to get the right kind of advice.”
Even small outreach efforts can drastically change a student’s perceptions of Columbia, in some cases causing them to realize applying may be a feasible option.
Wilver Vazquez, now a sophomore at Binghamton University, was a year ahead of Mejia at Mott Hall V and didn’t apply to Columbia, having received almost no information about the University either from an admissions representative or his own guidance counselor.
“An information session would have made it seem like it was not some far-off, ‘out-of-my-league’ institution; it would have given it some more familiarity— like they’re reaching out,” he said.
Mejia was the first student from Mott Hall V to attend an Ivy League university, and Vazquez said that her acceptance will change how students from his high school see Columbia altogether.
“Columbia does not seem like an option till someone actually gets in,” he said. “Now that someone has actually gotten in, it’s not such a foreign concept.”
Hifza Shaukat, CC ‘21, said that, without communication from a Columbia representative, students at her high school often reach out to her, who remains their only touchpoint at Columbia.
“There were definitely other students who had a chance, but didn't try because either they didn't think they [were qualified], or because they didn't know much about [Columbia],” she said. “I am usually bombarded with questions from students at my school who plan on applying to Columbia, which sometimes becomes overwhelming for me.”
Christine Stamberg, college counselor at Martin Van Buren High School in Queens, said she often has to “beg and plead” her top students to even consider applying to elite institutions like Columbia. For first-generation college students whose parents have not gone through the college process, there can often be less support at home, she explained.
Stamberg said that Yale and Harvard hold separate information sessions at the high school, which generate interest among her most high-achieving students.
“[The Harvard representative] lets the kids know they might have a shot here. … They need to hear that from someone other than me,” she said. “The [representative] from Yale was a local black Queens kid. That was really inspirational … for [my students]: to see a student who looks like them and came from Queens.”
Marinaccio said that the feedback her office has heard nationwide is that high schools would prefer trained admissions professionals to conduct information sessions.
“We typically for high school visits would always send the admission officer,” she said. “We train the admissions officers with an awareness that you're going to be speaking to different populations. … You really have to understand what that school is and the students to whom you might be speaking.”
Henessy Pineda, a recent graduate Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School in Brooklyn, now goes to Cornell. While Cornell held an information session at her high school, Columbia did not. Pineda said the information session helped students who were anxious about being unable to pay for their education.
“Knowing that Columbia was a [need-blind] school would have relieved a lot of worries and concern. … Lacking just that simple piece of information caused many of us to stray away from the application,” she said.
In contrast, Raisa Alam, CC ’21, who graduated from one the city’s top specialized high schools, the Bronx High School of Science, said she was able to ask questions when Columbia’s admissions representative visited her school.
“[Information sessions] make a huge difference. … At Bronx Science, people are geared towards the application process. There’s a little bit more morale amongst the student body to apply to competitive prestigious college,” Alam said. “I think there are many potential applicants who do not end up applying because there is no visibility of Columbia... For me, I knew how many people got accepted from my high school—but for other people… it might be zero.”