Good Students from Low-Income Families Less Likely to go to Top Colleges

Monday, April 01, 2013
(graphic: CBC News)

As class inequality in the United States continues to rise to levels not seen in a century—and levels higher than any other advanced nation—some see expanded access to post-secondary education as a possible solution. A pair of new studies, however, shows that even when low-income students have the background and credentials that would allow them to attend a top college or university, they rarely actually do so.


One study, conducted by Caroline M. Hoxby of Stanford and Christopher Avery of Harvard, found that only 34% of high-achieving high school seniors at the bottom quarter of income attended a top college, while among top students in the highest income quartile, 78% did. The researchers conclude that despite claims that they want to recruit students from the ranks of the working class and the poor, the nation's top colleges are largely failing in their efforts.


The reasons for the disparity appear to be largely informational in nature. Low-income students tend to believe that a top college would be too difficult or too expensive, and they rarely know an alumni of such schools who could mentor them. As a result, many attend community colleges or regional universities, unaware that elite schools are often able to provide financial aid sufficient to make them less expensive than the seemingly lower-cost alternatives. With fewer resources available to them at lesser schools, such students often do not graduate and miss out on career opportunities that could provide for class mobility.


“A lot of low-income and middle-income students have the inclination to stay local, at known colleges, which is understandable when you think about it,” explained George Moran, a guidance counselor in Bridgeport, Connecticut. “They didn’t have any other examples, any models—who’s ever heard of Bowdoin College?”


A geographical element also plays a role. High-achieving poor students in the nation’s 15 largest metropolitan areas do often apply to top schools, but such students from smaller cities and rural areas typically do not. According to the researchers, that is a reflection of the recruiting strategies of the top schools, which focus their efforts on large urban and suburban high schools that have large student bodies.


The study also debunked the common notion that low-income students do not typically succeed at top schools. When they do attend such schools, they actually tend to thrive there, with 89% of them graduating or on pace to do so, compared with only 50% of top low-income students at non-selective colleges. Among high-achieving, low-income students, 6% were black, 8% Latino, 15% Asian-American, and 69% white, the study found.


The solution may not be that difficult. The authors found that simply sending low-income high achieving students an information packet correcting the misconceptions noted above and explaining the opportunities at top schools, caused the rate of admission to jump from 30% to 54%...which makes one wonder why our elite schools have not being doing this already. 

-Matt Bewig


To Learn More:

Better Colleges Failing to Lure Talented Poor (by David Leonhardt, New York Times)

A Simple Way to Send Poor Kids to Top Colleges (by David Leonhardt, New York Times)

Expanding College Opportunities for High-Achieving, Low Income Students (by Caroline Hoxby and Sarah Turner, Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research) (pdf)

The Missing “One-Offs”: The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low Income Students (by Caroline M. Hoxby and Christopher Avery, National Bureau of Economic Research) (pdf)


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