Colleges Struggle to Connect With High-Achieving Poor Students

PHOTO: Few of the nations top-scoring, low-income high school seniors apply to the nations elite colleges, according to a new study. But the authors are now looking for ways to connect more of those students with colleges.

Admission to college is often seen in poor, minority communities as a ticket to a better life, but most of the nation's top-scoring low-income students don't apply to the country's best schools.

According to a new report, "The Missing 'One-Offs': The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low Income Students," only about a third of high-achieving high school seniors in the bottom quarter of income distribution enrolled in one of the country's 200 or so most-selective colleges.

On the other hand, there are far more students in this group than previously believed, and that's a very good thing, according to the study's authors.

"There are eight to nine times more low-income, high-achieving students than we thought there were," said Caroline Hoxby, a Stanford economics professor and one of the authors, "so that's very good news."

The challenge is connecting colleges with those students. That's something Hoxby and her colleagues are looking into, and she thinks it's possible--it's just going to take some adjustment and collaboration.

The study identifies high-achieving students as those who score among the top 10 percent of those taking college-aptitude tests, which really puts them in the top four percent of students overall since only about 40 percent of high school students take such tests. The study also restricts the identification to students who report having a GPA of an A- or more.

Many of these students--far more than the third who do attend top universities--are capable of succeeding at elite colleges. The study found that the small number who do apply to top institutions are just as likely to enroll and progress toward a degree as high-income students with equivalent test scores and grades.

But the students simply don't apply, for a variety of reasons. Many, for instance, choose to attend schools closer to home, even when those colleges rank lower or offer less career help. Others are helping support families or caring for siblings at home still.

Finances can play a role, but just as notable is the lack of information about financial aid. Though many elite schools offer financial-aid packages that make the cost the same or even less than attending a less-competitive school, the students often don't realize how much assistance is available. Stanford University offers sizeable scholarships that can greatly help low-income students. It even waives tuition, which was about $41,000 for the 2012-2013 school year, for undergraduate students whose families make less than $100,000 per year. But these elite schools haven't all done a good job of making sure students are aware of the help. In other instances, students may know of the aid offered, but they aren't sure how to go after it.

Geography is a factor as well. Top students from large urban areas such as New York apply to highly competitive schools at much higher rates than poor students from less metropolitan areas. Part of that is due to outreach by colleges. It is easier for admissions officers at top universities to reach out to them. It can be prohibitively expensive for an admissions counselor to travel to a town in, say, Kentucky to recruit a handful of high-achieving poor students when there are dozens in one major city like Chicago.

The study also notes the importance of knowing someone who has successfully attended a top university, particularly when it's not nearby. Many low-income, high-achieving students are not familiar with someone in that position, so the idea doesn't register as realistic.

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