First in the Family

One student’s path to an elite university

Amy Scott Dec 3, 2013
First in the Family

One student’s path to an elite university

Amy Scott Dec 3, 2013

When George Alvarez was in high school and starting to apply to colleges, a top university like Johns Hopkins wasn’t even on his radar.

“I actually never heard about Johns Hopkins until my senior year, when my history teacher told me to apply there,” he says.

George grew up on Long Island, just outside New York City, the son of a housekeeper and a retired mechanic. He knew he wanted to be a doctor and was looking at a low-cost program nearby, where he could earn a bachelor’s degree and an M.D. in seven years.

“And my history teacher was like, ‘you could go there, or you can go to Hopkins and experience college life and then apply to medical school,’” he says.

He applied to both schools, and got into both. Johns Hopkins — with its sticker price of more than $50,000 a year — turned out to be cheaper. With grants and scholarships, he would pay around $5,000 for tuition and room and board.

So George and his parents — immigrants from El Salvador whose own schooling stopped at sixth grade — headed for Baltimore to visit. It was George’s first time out of New York.

“The first thing I noticed was there were no metal detectors in the entrance, as there were in my high school,” he says.

That was four years ago. George is a senior now. I meet him at the university’s plush new undergraduate teaching labs, where students lounge on rocking chairs and sip lattes in a glass atrium. Looking back, George says that first visit almost kept him away.

“I was intimidated,” he says. “Especially once I was here, once I was immersed with my other classmates, who I felt were better than me.”

George had been a straight-A student at Uniondale High School. Even so, his guidance counselor advised him not to go to Hopkins — to pick the local program instead. It was competitive, but at a less selective school.

“’It’s not a good fit for you, you’re going to be alone.’” he recalls the counselor saying of Hopkins. “And I was like, ‘I’m going to prove you wrong.’”

George thinks now that counselor was probably trying to protect him.

“It’s not at all unusual to have guidance counselors advise low-income students to go to the kinds of colleges where other low-income students go, instead of going to the sort of colleges for which they are best prepared,” says Caroline Hoxby, an economics professor at Stanford University.

Hoxby’s research on so-called “under-matched” students has shaken up the college admissions world this year. She says most low-income, high achieving seniors don’t even apply to the Harvards and Macalesters and UCLAs of the world — even though they tend to fare much better at highly selective colleges.

“They’re more likely to get good academic advice,” she says. “They’re more likely to be in a cohort of students where everyone believes that they’re going to complete on time.”

And they’re more likely to land better jobs, with higher pay. Hoxby says if you’re qualified to go to a top college and don’t, “our minimum estimate is that you’re giving up half a million dollars over your lifetime in net present dollars.”

Hoxby says sometimes all it takes is the right information. She’s been working with the College Board to send out customized packets to top, low-income students comparing financial aid and graduation rates at various colleges.

Johns Hopkins is part of the effort. George’s story of finding Hopkins is common, says David Phillips, the university’s vice provost for admissions and financial aid.

“That’s almost an accident, right? A happy accident that he ran into the right teacher to steer him in the right direction,” he says. “That too often is the case.” He says Hoxby’s research is helping universities reach out to students in more systematic ways.

“And schools need to do that,” he says.

But of course getting students to campus is just the beginning. For George, it was a rocky start. On his third chemistry exam, he scored a 10 out of 76. That first year, he thought about quitting every night.

“I thought this was too hard,” he says. “I thought I’d be a happier person being back home in New York.” And not having to adjust to a completely different life, he says.

His adjustment came thanks to another happy accident. Eventually he found his way to the Office of Multicultural Affairs, where he met other students from backgrounds like his. He’s now a leader there.

On a recent night, George advised freshmen and sophomores at an event for underrepresented students thinking about medical careers.

“I wish someone mentored me,” he says. “I needed a role model to look up to, and I didn’t have it so it was difficult to me, and I want to be that role model for them.”

George is set to graduate in the spring with a degree in biophysics. He plans to take a year off and apply to med school.

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