Low-income students in the United States are encountering an ever-widening opportunity gap. They often have limited access to the educational, tutorial, and college-counseling resources available to their more-advantaged peers. Young people growing up in poverty also have fewer college-going role models to emulate. As one student explained to us, “I know more people in my neighborhood who have been shot than have gone to college.”

Low-income, first-generation students face an added challenge: They have little help at home when choosing what colleges to apply to, and filling out college applications and financial aid forms. Compounding the problem, the average ratio of students to high school-college counselors is exceptionally high—in the state of California, it is 800 to one. Many low-income students are not receiving the personalized attention they need to successfully complete the application process and get to—and through—college and into a career-ladder job.

This missed educational opportunity and loss of human potential has serious ramifications for the students, their families, and the country. Worldwide, the United States ranks 14th in the percentage of adults with a college degree. It also has the highest college dropout rate—40 percent—among industrialized nation, and for low-income students, the college dropout rate is even higher—53 percent. When factoring in the college enrollment gap between rich and poor students, the numbers become staggering, with 88 percent of high-income high school graduates enrolling in college, compared to just 52 percent of low-income high school graduates. Put another way, only 10 percent of youth from the lowest-income quartile in the United States complete a bachelor’s degree by age 25, compared to 80 percent of youth from the highest-income quartile.

Stanford University professor Caroline Hoxby has conducted illuminating research demonstrating how cost-effective outreach efforts can positively influence and broaden the college selection and success of high-achieving, low-income students. Her work provides innovative solutions in equalizing access to higher education for low-income students with high GPAs.

Broader questions that we are beginning to explore include: How do we level the playing field for low-income students who are not yet high-achievers? Can we use technology to provide much-needed online college support services to targeted high schools and colleges that have limited counseling resources? What are the opportunities to adopt a physical world solution to the digital world?

A “Safe Place”

Our organization, Students Rising Above, is focused on enabling low-income, first-generation students to attend a four-year college and secure a career-ladder job. We identify students in their junior year of high school who are rising above family and economic hardships, and assist them with the college admission process—including finding, applying for, and maintaining financial aid. We provide one-on-one mentoring throughout the collegiate experience, and ultimately offer job preparation and counseling services to help our graduates find meaningful jobs. The students we’ve worked with have a 90 percent college-graduation rate and complete their bachelor’s degrees in 4.5 years; 87 percent of our graduates are in career-ladder jobs or attending graduate school within 12 months of graduation.

But for all of this, there were still hundreds of students we didn’t have the capacity to help. Earlier this year, for example, we could accommodate only 110 of the more than 700 students who applied to our traditional SRA program.

Then we realized we had a great opportunity to leverage technology to dramatically increase student engagement and maximize our overall program effectiveness.

The SRA College2Careers Hub (SRA Hub) is meeting a critical need among low-income students and resource-strapped school districts by expanding components of the traditional SRA program and now making the program available—economically and efficiently—to thousands of students across the country. Participating high schools pay just $5 per student after a students’ first year of use.

Through the hub, students can get information (via articles, webinars, and videos) on popular topics including SAT score preparation and reporting, the Common Application, financial aid, and scholarship assistance. They can ask questions—such as “How can I create an effective personal statement?” and “What are the best colleges to apply to, based on my student profile?”—and then receive personalized responses within 24 hours from SRA’s network of professional online college advisors, all of whom are first-generation college graduates who have advanced degrees in education, college counseling, or social services. They can also share information via an interactive online discussion board, communicate with college admission reps, and access job information as they prepare to transition into the workforce.

Preliminary data from our more than 2,000 current users shows that students are embracing the online interaction. The SRA Hub experiences peak logins during college application submissions and financial aid completions.

SRA expects to have data on college-graduation rates in four to five years, and continues to actively survey users and school administrators. We’ve found that those who are quiet in the classroom are often vocal online, enjoying a perceived sense of anonymity in posting questions and comments. As one student commented, “I loved the community on the SRA Hub. I felt that everyone’s voice was equal, and it was my safe place [to share] any bumps I encountered.”

So far, we have targeted our outreach efforts to school districts with limited college counseling services. Participating schools have integrated the hub into 11th and 12th grade curricula to further promote a college-going environment, and will expand to 10 more schools this year. Through technology, our organization is now serving five times the number of students we served just 12 months ago. And we eagerly expect that number to grow.

The Promise

While there are many digital tools that address various pieces of the high school-college-workforce pathway—including options from Beyond 12, I’m First, and College Greenlight—the SRA Hub aims to provide support at each stage along the collegiate pathway, and it’s one of the few that specifically targets low-income, first-generation college students.

If we want to break the cycle of poverty for low-income students, we need to continue to leverage the technology that students are eagerly embracing to bridge the widening opportunity and education gaps.