Low-Income Students Aim Low in College Applications

You’ve probably seen recent reports that low-income, high-achieving high school students set their college sights much lower than their high-income counterparts. That’s the chief finding of recent research by Stanford’s Caroline M. Hoxby and Harvard’s Christopher Avery presented last week at Brookings Papers on Economic Activity.

That finding is nicely illustrated in an infographic accompanying the paper (click for a higher-resolution version):

hoxby02

Here’s their summary of findings:

We show that the vast majority of very high-achieving students who are low-income do not apply to any selective college or university. This is despite the fact that selective institutions would often cost them less, owing to generous financial aid, than the resource-poor two-year and non-selective four-year institutions to which they actually apply. Moreover, high-achieving, low-income students who do apply to selective institutions are admitted and graduate at high rates. We demonstrate that these low-income students’ application behavior differs greatly from that of their high-income counterparts who have similar achievement. The latter group generally follows the advice to apply to a few “par” colleges, a few “reach” colleges, and a couple of “safety” schools. We separate the low-income, high-achieving students into those whose application behavior is similar to that of their high-income counterparts (“achievement-typical” behavior) and those whose apply to no selective institutions (“income-typical” behavior). We show that income-typical students do not come from families or neighborhoods that are more disadvantaged than those of achievement-typical students. However, in contrast to the achievement-typical students, the income-typical students come from districts too small to support selective public high schools, are not in a critical mass of fellow high achievers, and are unlikely to encounter a teacher or schoolmate from an older cohort who attended a selective college. We demonstrate that widely-used policies–college admissions staff recruiting, college campus visits, college access programs–are likely to be ineffective with income-typical students, and we suggest policies that will be effective must depend less on geographic concentration of high achievers.