Low-Income High-Achievers Don’t Apply to Selective Colleges

According to a recent study published by Stanford's Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, low-income high-achieving students often hamstring themselves in their higher education careers by not attempting to gain admission to some of the more selective colleges and universities in the United States. According to Matthew Yglesias writing for Slate, this means that the best schools in the country lose access to as many as 20,000 potential high-performing students per year.

It isn't a surprise that the large proportion of high-achieving students come from families with higher income. Of those whose ACT and SAT scores place them in the top 10% of the student population, only 17% come from families in the bottom quarter of the U.S. population in income.

The problem arises from the fact that while higher-income high achievers are more likely to apply to the best colleges, those who match them academically, but come from poorer families are more likely to settle for a lower-profile, lower-prestige and less selective school.

Low-income students are very different. Fully 53 percent of them apply to zero schools whose median SAT or ACT scores are similar to their own. Many of these smart, poor kids apply only to a single unselective school. Only a very small percentage of these kids—8 percent of them, the authors estimate—act the same as high-achievement kids from prosperous families by applying to selective schools, including some reaches and safeties.

Hoxby and Avery label the 53 percent "income-typical" and the 8 percent "achievement-typical." They find that that small minority of students who exhibit achievement-typical application behavior do just as well as higher-income students at actually enrolling in and graduating from college. When poor kids apply to good schools, in other words, they're just as likely to get in as more affluent ones are. The selective colleges deliver enough financial aid to make it possible for achievement-typical kids to attend, and they're able to do the work and graduate.

Those who are achievement-typical have some characteristics in common. They tend to come from urban settings – the larger the area, the more achievement-typical low-income students it will have – or from smaller cities that are located near very selective colleges.

Low-income students who come from rural or suburban parts of the country are more likely to be income-typical mainly due to the fact that their schools don't have the support systems in place to get them through the sometimes-challenging college application process. In short, they are less likely to find people who would encourage them to stretch themselves and apply to a more selective school.

There are some logistical barriers to improving recruiting—it's cheaper to recruit nearby and in bigger high schools—but they hardly seem insurmountable. If colleges start to realize how many high-achieving low-income students they're missing, they might send their recruiting staff further afield. What's more, written communications can easily target students regardless of location. The key is that written outreach needs to be specially tailored to the circumstances of low-income students whose personal networks don't include graduates of selective schools. That means emphasizing the real cost of attendance rather than headline tuition, and the fact that there are gradations of school quality beyond Harvard vs. Other. And success could build on itself. If selective schools did a better job of reaching out to lower-income students, they'd build more diverse alumni networks.

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