The Wapato School District plays very deliberate music for callers on hold.

“You can be college bound; so many things that you’ll be able to do,” the catchy song begins. “Chart your course and set your sights. A bright new future lies ahead of you.”

A student’s voice interrupts, asking, “Do you really think I could go to college?”

“Absolutely!” comes the reply.

Schools up and down the Yakima Valley are working hard to emphasize the importance of college readiness, adding more one-on-one guidance to help students fulfill necessary requirements and meet deadlines.

But a recent national study shows many students aren’t aiming as high as they could in their college aspirations. Researchers from Stanford and Harvard universities found that high-achieving students in low-income areas don’t seek out the nation’s top schools or Ivy League universities, despite the substantial financial aid such schools are offering.

Local educators say they try to encourage worthy students to apply to the Ivy League institutions, but run into resistance.

“It’s very intimidating to attempt to get into university when you’re a child of poverty,” said Toppenish principal Trevor Greene. “It’s even intimidating when you’re a student and you have the support system that a wealthy family would have. But you imagine our high poverty students, many who have parents who haven’t gone or navigated that … they’re easily dissuaded.”

Unless they are somehow exposed to Ivy League colleges outside of school, it’s rare for Yakima Valley students from any economic background to consider them.

“We do have some kids that are applying to Ivy League, but not in a large number,” said Ryan Maxwell, principal at Sunnyside High School. He has seen students end up at Stanford, MIT and Cornell, but, “Typically, kids apply for schools that are in Washington state. ... They don’t want to go too far from home.”

Like most local high schools, Sunnyside focuses on establishing some sort of “post-secondary” plans for its students, recognizing that college is not ideal for everyone.

But for those with their sights set on college, the scope seems limited to Central Washington University, Eastern Washington University, Washington State University, Heritage University and Yakima Valley Community College.

Even the University of Washington, sometimes referred to as a “public Ivy,” seems too far away for many seniors — though it’s actually a shorter drive to Seattle from Yakima than to Pullman.

It’s not that no one from the Valley applies to the eight Ivy League institutions, which are all east of the Mississippi River, or top-tier institutions like Stanford. In the Upper Valley, high school counselors and principals say that between “a handful” and two dozen students apply to top schools every year.

At Davis High School, counselor Arasely Gainer says high-achieving students tend to be in the International Baccalaureate program, a rigorous curriculum offered the last two years of high school that can result in college credit.

“Every year, we do have a good handful of kids that apply to a lot of the East Coast schools; whether they get in or not is a different story. ... It’s really competitive and they only take the total cream of the crop.”

For example, a young woman who graduated from Davis in 2012 went on to Brown University after completing the full IB diploma, scoring high on her SATs and maintaining a 4.0 GPA. To even be eligible for those “cream of the crop” schools, students have to be aware of their strict requirements early on.

“One of the things we always address is that college admission requirements are different from just your high school graduation requirements,” Gainer said. “We encourage them to take those higher-level classes, take the extra year of math, take the extra year of science … so when you get to your senior year, if that’s what you’re shooting for, then you’ll be prepared.”

At Toppenish, the high school five years ago implemented “advisory groups,” cohorts of 24 students from the same grade that meet together with the same teacher every day for four years. They get more individual attention and time for questions and information sharing. Teachers help students commit to specific goals.

The cost of college presents a huge barrier in nearly all students’ minds.

Kids may apply to private schools and even some elite universities, but when they are admitted and sit down to look at financial packages, the panic can set in, especially as it often takes more time for financial aid offers to come through. By then, students have often already decided to go somewhere more affordable, said counselor DeLynn Elliott at Selah High School.

“I think our kids today are starting to hear about debt,” she said. “More kids are coming in, saying ‘I don’t want to incur debt; don’t want to get a loan. I’ve seen so many people get out of college with $30,000 to $40,000 in debt.’”

Counselors and teachers in the Valley are quick to point out that Washington state and the Pacific Northwest have plenty of colleges that offer a quality education.

But what students — and counselors — don’t always know is that the top national schools often have far more generous financial aid packages than state colleges.

A study published by Stanford’s Caroline Hoxby and Harvard’s Christopher Avery explains that “very selective institutions not only offer students much richer instructional, extracurricular and other resources, they also offer high-achieving, low-income students so much financial aid that the students would often pay less to attend a selective institution than the far less selective or nonselective post-secondary institutions that most of them do attend.”

Harvard, for example, offers any admitted student whose family income is $60,000 or less a full-ride scholarship, with no student loans. Stanford has a similar model.

Assistant superintendent Peter Finch in the West Valley School District, who graduated from Wapato High School and went on to Harvard himself, says he tries to make students more aware of need-based aid. He said while there are always a handful of students applying, the number might be higher if students were better educated about the aid possibilities.

Toppenish High School senior Maria Zuniga, 17, for example, wasn’t aware of the financial aid available from Harvard.

“I actually considered applying to Harvard; I started the application, created the common app online, but I decided to not finish the application because I didn’t think I would have the resources in terms of money to be able to go there.”

Zuniga, who has earned 15 college credits by taking advanced classes, applied to the UW, WSU, Gonzaga University and Eastern, and will attend WSU in Pullman this fall.

Her classmate Jose Gonzalez, 17, applied to the UW and Central and was accepted to both, but chose Central.

“I never really had the idea of applying to any Ivy League schools or out of state. ... I don’t think I’d feel comfortable going out of my comfort zone, Washington state,” he said. That’s why he picked Central over the UW, too: “Ellensburg is a place I could live comfortable.”

State schools have a built-in advantage with local students because, unlike the Ivy Leagues, they sell their institutions on high school campuses.

Representatives from the state colleges are frequent visitors to high schools throughout the Yakima area, and several schools take students on field trips to see the UW and WSU campuses.

“I think (the Ivy League) is off their radar. We try to mention it, but again, there’s not that visual or tangible person saying, ‘Hey, you could go here and we want you here,’ those kinds of things,” said Kate Green, a counselor at Wapato. “That’s hard for any of us to visualize. I think there’s some self-esteem (issues): ‘I won’t get in; why try?’”

The state universities also send multicultural representatives to visit.

“A person of color coming and saying, ‘You can do it, you can be here at college’; that, I think, is a huge help,” Green said.

Many students in low-income communities, particularly in the Lower Valley, are the first in their families to go to college. That means the entire burden of navigating the complex system of applications, admission requirements, financial aid documents and registration often rests on the student.

Students typically learn of the more prestigious schools through friends and family members who live out of state.

Michael Terrell, 24, graduated from Eisenhower High School in 2007 and went to Stanford. He’d first learned of the school while visiting family in the Bay Area, and went with cousins to see the campus when he was in middle school. That’s what first gave him the idea that he might like to attend someday, he said. So he started high school aware that he wanted to prepare for Stanford.

But Terrell says only eight or 10 of his classmates might have applied to out-of-state schools.

“I didn’t get a huge sense of people feeling empowered to take that risk. I didn’t get a huge sense of people being like, ‘I can and I want to try to do this,’” he said.

Terrell’s choice has already reaped rewards. He graduated from Stanford in 2011 and recently co-authored a book on leadership development with one of his professors titled “The Inside Out Effect.”

Terrell would like to see Yakima Valley educators and their students aim higher.

“If it’s really about the money, there are ways around that,” he said. “I think at the end of the day, going to college in general — let alone these highly competitive schools — is a product of getting these students to believe it’s possible and presenting it in such a way that it becomes a desirable goal.”

• Molly Rosbach can be reached at 509-577-7728 or