There is nothing that says a student cannot succeed at a school not considered "top-tier." But a New York Times article on the study pointed out that these schools typically graduate students at lower rates and offer them fewer resources after graduation. In an age when networking can make all the difference, graduates can miss out on opportunities to connect with successful alumni.
While colleges routinely express the desire to attract a diverse student body, they haven't done a good job of making income diversity a reality. Admitting more minority students doesn't solve the problem. Many of the minority students at top institutions come from upper-income level homes, so these colleges are not necessarily catering to students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.
Part of the problem, the study argues, is that typical methods of outreach, such as admissions staff recruiting and campus outreach, are relatively ineffective when it comes to connecting with high-achieving poor students.
One reason is that colleges typically send all students the same brochures. High-achieving poor students don't receive targeted financial-aid information, which might attract more applicants.
Poor, academically successful students also are less likely to have school counselors who have developed relationships with top schools.
But that can change, and just identifying the fact that there are so many more high-achieving but low-income students out there than previously thought is a big step, Hoxby said. It draws attention to the issue.
Hoxby is currently looking into how best to reach poor, high-achieving students. She says colleges haven't been doing anything wrong, it's just that they need help.
Outreach, she said, "has to be data-driven."
That's where groups like College Board, which sponsors the SAT, come in. They have access to data about where high-performing students are located. They could, for instance, send targeted brochures to students using that data. In cases where recruitment relies on established relationships with school counselors, they could also reach out to specific counselors at schools that have been identified as magnets for poor but high-achieving students.
Hoxby believes potential students fall through the cracks not because schools aren't trying to recruit them, but because their recruiting methods mean schools are all finding the same students.
"There's not actually a lot of bad news in this paper," Hoxby said.
Right now, colleges just "don't have a way of figuring out how to find those students," she said. "But that doesn't mean they couldn't increase outreach if they find them."