When I was a senior in high school growing up in Medford, Massachusetts, I probably would have applied only to local colleges — not Harvard, that was for rich kids who were straight-A students, and I was neither. But I was lucky: I had an after-school job at an electronics company, and one of the managers there encouraged me to apply to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, because of its top-notch science program. If not for the interest she showed in a 17-year-old kid’s future, who knows where life would have taken me. I’m glad it took me to Hopkins.

I was no different than many of today’s high school seniors who, though not valedictorians, have the grades to get into competitive colleges. Yet tens of thousands of them are not applying. Like me, most of these students come from families of modest means.

Today, 70 percent of students at the country’s most competitive colleges — which graduate students at the highest rates — come from families with incomes in the top 25 percent. Only 6 percent of students who grow up poor attend a leading school. Those are damning statistics for a country that prides itself on being a meritocracy, where young people with drive and ability can rise to the top, regardless of their family’s income.

Most high-achieving students from low-income families end up at open-access, two- and four-year colleges. When that happens, they graduate at lower rates, with fewer career options — and often with more debt, too. That short-changes their talent, reduces their career options, and hurts our country.

The outcomes we have always counted on our higher education system delivering — advancing economic mobility, fighting poverty, and building our leadership ranks in science, medicine, business, engineering, technology, and public service — are not being met for the vast majority of Americans. The longer this situation persists, the harder it will be to expand the middle class and eliminate the racial and ethnic disparities that define our economy and hold back our society.

The problem is not that poor and middle-income students lack the credentials to gain acceptance at top schools; many are highly-qualified. But they are not applying for a myriad of reasons — starting with sticker shock.

Many selective colleges top $50,000 a year in tuition plus room and board — about the average median household income. Low-income students know their families can’t afford those prices without help and don’t know how to get it. These students also often lack academic role models, examples of students like themselves who have successfully made the transition to leading colleges and universities.

In addition, with guidance counselors at low-income high schools advising an average of 1,000 students, too many high-achieving students don’t receive enough personal guidance from those who know the college landscape best, including which schools offer the most generous financial aid packages. Instead, the perception that poor students don’t go to top colleges becomes reality. It doesn’t have to be that way, but up until now, no major effort has been made to change it.

This week, Bloomberg Philanthropies is setting a new national goal: Increasing the percentage of high-achieving, low- and moderate-income students who attend top colleges from approximately one-third to one-half in just four years. To help reach that goal, we are launching a new initiative that aims to help as many as 65,000 of these students find a school that matches their abilities.

Over the first two years, we will invest $10 million to implement a comprehensive approach to the problem that will support students while also challenging colleges to do better.

Through a partnership with the College Board and other non-profit organizations, we will provide students with one-on-one, real-time college advisors who will communicate with students over the phone, as well as via email, video conferencing, and text and instant messaging.

Our virtual advisors will be based at proven college access organizations, including the College Advising Corps and College Possible. Eligible students will come from all fifty states, in small towns and big cities. The advisors will help students understand their college options, and they will help them get through the mounds of paperwork that can often accompany financial aid applications. As part of this work, through a partnership with Khan Academy, these students — and all Khan Academy users — will have access to high-quality online content on the college application and financial aid process. All of these efforts are designed to support and supplement the work of high school guidance counselors.

Our work will also include researching what practices are most effective, so we can share successful strategies with schools and non-profits. In addition, we will form a task force with the Aspen Institute to generate recommendations for how the 265 colleges with the highest graduation rates, along with the federal government, can increase the number of high-achieving low-income applicants.

We know our efforts can be successful, because when high-achieving, lower-income students do apply to top colleges and universities, they are accepted and graduate at the same rates as their wealthier peers — and they have earnings that are about 25% higher than those of students who attend less selective colleges. That translates (on average) to a difference of $450,000 over the course of a lifetime.

A college education is not for everyone, and the country should be making greater investments in career-oriented schools centered on growing industries. But right now, thousands of bright, industrious high school students from lower-income families miss the chance to go to our leading colleges and universities each year, and our country is poorer for it. This is a solvable problem — one that requires opening doors, not lowering standards. The promise of equal opportunity and economic mobility that lies at the heart of the American dream can only be fulfilled if our top students have the opportunity to attend our top colleges.

By Michael R. Bloomberg

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