Elite Colleges Struggle to Attract Low-Income Applicants

According to NPR, what is quietly hampering the efforts of elite colleges to diversify their student bodies is the fact that they're struggling to attract high-achieving students from low-income backgrounds. During the admissions season, Ivy League schools like Cornell, Harvard and Yale expend an inordinate amount of effort to find high-performing applicants who come from poor families, yet no matter how attractive the financial aid package they offer, the numbers remain flat year to year.

The terms offered to low-income students are very attractive. In addition to grants covering the cost of tuition, many schools throw in free room and board as well. NPR reports that for those selected, the cost of attending one of the best schools in the country could be lower than enrolling in a nearby public university — yet this doesn't appear to have made a dent in their numbers.

Caroline Hoxby, who studies the socioeconomic makeup of student bodies in elite schools, points out to a recent effort by Harvard to offer what was essentially free tuition to students whose family income was below $40,000. The end result? An increase of only 15 students out of more than 1,600 freshmen enrolling in Harvard that year.

Hoxby says some college administers had confided to her that they had reluctantly come to the conclusion that the pool of low-income students with top academic credentials was just limited, and there wasn't much they could do to change that. But in an analysis published with Christopher Avery in December, Hoxby has shown that this conclusion isn't true. There is in fact a vast pool of highly talented, low-income students; they just aren't ending up in top schools.

Hoxby offered one possible reason – students that these colleges desperately seek are just not applying. Admission counselors reach out to promising students once their applications are submitted, but the true problem is getting more of them to apply in the first place. This is not an issue in high schools that have been traditionally seen as feeders to elite schools. A high-achiever from Stuyvesant in New York and Thomas Jefferson from Washington has access to excellent academics and – even more importantly – experienced and dedicated college admissions counselors who push them to reach for the sky.

Hoxby and Avery found that top students who do not live in these major metropolitan areas were significantly less likely to end up at a highly selective school. These students were far less likely to find themselves in a pipeline that ended at an Ivy League school.

"Imagine a student who is the only student who is a likely candidate for a place like Harvard or Stanford or University of Chicago — and he's not just the only student in his or her high school, but he's the only student that that high school has graduated like that in, say, three or four years," Hoxby says.

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