Rashel Mejia, CC ’22, was the first to go to an Ivy League university from her high school after Columbia held its first information session there.
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.
Mejia noted that her acceptance will make students from her high school perceive Columbia as a viable option. (Cherrie Zheng/Staff Photographer).
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.”
Source: Off the radar: At public schools where Columbia doesn’t recruit, applicants face uphill battle