It is no secret that the cost of higher education in the United States is fast outpacing the population’s ability to pay. As a result, independent educational consultants (IECs) are already or will soon be working with increasing numbers of students with need, and many of those who would be considered “under resourced.”

Who are they? 

Finding a fit between our students and their postsecondary direction and options is at the heart of our shared philosophy. So, depth of understanding of the kids we serve is of critical importance if we want to identify a “good” or “best” fit beyond just a superficial level. Still, sometimes, we find common characteristics within student subgroups, based on where they are from, what kinds of schools they attend, or even the types of activities in which they are involved (like athletes, musicians, and student leaders). Having fit well into the under-resourced category myself, and having worked with more than a few of these kids in my time in admissions and college counseling, these are some of the common characteristics of this population that I see and that merit extra consideration and exploration when working with them.

Common challenges and special strengths

First, their challenges: these kids can often be operating with high anxiety, a fear of the unknown and unfamiliar, and an aversion to risk. This is especially true when it comes to the overwhelming ticket price of a formal education beyond high school, and concern about its practicality or perception of return on the investment. Sometimes, they feel a sense of guilt for wanting something more than what their family—parents and/or siblings—have had, and for the idea of leaving them behind. There can be a lack of support from parents, peers, their school—and sometimes even active discouragement—due to a lack of knowledge or experience they have to draw upon, themselves, or due to their own negative past experiences. 

At the same time, these kids often are mentally tough. They have learned to be resilient by necessity, and to get by with less, and to expect less. They are persistent, and they have often learned that they have to work hard for material, opportunity, and achievement. And most often they are self-reliant and tend to expect that they need to figure things out for themselves, versus asking for help.

Understand where they are coming from

So, when this student crosses your path, be aware that they may be particularly unfamiliar with your role as an IEC and what you can offer, though they often need your help the most. It is really important to first consider how they came your way in the first place and where they are coming from, and what their specific challenges and needs are. And this level of understanding must be reached before you even ask the first question about what they want to do with their lives or what type of college they are seeking. Some key topics to address:

  1. How have they come to you, and what is their sense of how you might help them? Are they able to frame what they want and need?
  2. Learn about their family and friends—what are their circumstances, roles, and levels and sources of personal, emotional, and financial support? Are they on their own, or is there a person/people out there in the wings who could form a supportive circle for them?

  3. What is the degree of support coming from the school—its systems in place and its staffing and experience, especially for support of under-resourced kids?

  4. Do they allow themselves to dream? What do they imagine for their life ahead? What do they fear, hope for, and value?

  5. What level of knowledge do they have about how to access an education? Do they have a sense of possible pathways and options, including different kinds of degrees, training, certifications, or experiences?

Educate them about their options

And then, educate. I often find (with all types of students) that the language of higher education is full of ambiguity and foreign terminology. And an under-resourced student, depending upon their circumstances, may have even less exposure to this language. Pick up from wherever they are, and educate them from big picture to small: structures of a degree, including major, minor, elective, core; undergraduate versus graduate school; associate’s degree versus bachelor’s degree versus certificate or diploma; a major versus minor; and professional versus liberal arts. Help them to see the range of what they can study, and the nontraditional as well as traditional ways of getting an education. This will dramatically increase the student’s understanding of their options and sense of control over their own choices. It does a great deal to alleviate that fear of the unknown, as well as a sense of distrust that can result.

Of course, the financial piece must be acknowledged at each stage of the planning process. This is a fundamental thread from the first stage—understanding their circumstances—to the second stage of teaching them the terminology and options that have to do with aid; sticker price and how it can be lowered; and scholarships/grants/gift aid vs. borrowing, as well as potential return on investment. Next, building the college list, including options likely to generate the best awards, and setting application timelines, with recognition that those earlier deadlines can result in access to the greatest merit opportunities.


You may find that some of the resources you rely upon most heavily for these students are different. Here are just a few that I recommend that can help evaluate plans from various angles, and that I hope you will find useful:

By Hilary Lehn, MEd, IECA (Canada), H.R. Lehn Educational Consulting