NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

High-Achieving Low-Income Students Lack College Information

September 3, 2013

Ask any high school student in a well-heeled suburban community around the United States the best strategy for applying to college and chances are you'll hear something like this: apply to several schools, mostly with students whose grades and test scores are similar to your own. But be sure to include one or two "safeties" at which admission is all but guaranteed and a couple of "reaches." And data on the colleges to which high-achieving, high-income students apply and that they attend suggest that they are paying attention. The situation for low-income students appears to be quite different, say Caroline Hoxby, professor of economics at Stanford University, and Sarah Turner, professor of economics and education at the University of Virginia.

The vast majority of even very high achieving students from low-income families do not apply to a single selective college or university. In other words, having worked hard in high school to prepare themselves well for college, they do not even apply to the colleges whose curriculum is most geared toward students with their level of preparation.

This is particularly puzzling because there are good reasons why many of these students should attend more-selective colleges.

  • First, they are likely to succeed if they do. The high-achieving, low-income students who do apply are admitted, enroll, progress and graduate at the same rates as high-income students with equivalent test scores and grades.
  • Second, taking into account financial aid, low-income students generally face lower net costs at selective institutions than at the far less-selective institutions with fewer resources that most of them attend.

One potential explanation for this pattern of behavior is that high-achieving, low-income students do not have access to good information about college quality and costs.

  • These students are dispersed throughout the country and are often the only high-achieving student or one of just a few such students in their school.
  • Thus, their high school counselor is unlikely to have much expertise regarding selective colleges and likely to be focused on other issues. Nor are recruiting visits to their high school or community likely to be cost-effective for college admissions staff.
  • Moreover, it is often the case that neither parents nor other trusted adults are able to fill the deficit in information about college quality and costs for high-achieving low-income students.
  • In short, traditional information channels may bypass high-achieving, low-income students, even if a counselor conscientiously does everything that he or she can for these students.

Source: Caroline Hoxby and Sarah Turner, "Expanding College Opportunities," Education Next, August 2013.


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