Here's How To Get Smart, Poor Kids Into Top Colleges

Targeted information packets about school options proved effective in a test.

June 28, 2013— -- The smartest and brightest students in poor communities rarely make it to the nation's top colleges.

It's not because they aren't qualified. Instead, for a variety of reasons, they just don't apply. And researchers think they may have hit on a way to change that.

Caroline Hoxby, a Stanford economics professor and one of the authors of the study that revealed the college enrollment gap between poorer and wealthier students, found a potential way to close that gap in a follow-up study: Target high-achieving, low-income students with info packets on top-tier schools, and allow them to easily apply for free.

The stakes are high for granting more poor students access to quality higher education. Top schools often offer hefty scholarship packages or waive tuition. They often work out to be cheaper than public universities or community colleges, and they typically offer more career advising and networking opportunities that pay off well into the future.

Low-income students whose applications do make it to the admissions offices of colleges like Yale and Princeton are just as likely to enroll and progress toward a degree as other students. But schools have a difficult time finding those students and convincing them to submit applications.

Hoxby told ABC/Univision in March that colleges all employ similar recruiting methods. They send representatives into dense urban, poor areas to skim the cream of the crop because it's cost effective. There are lots of potential students in one place.

But the net they cast has huge holes, and potential students - like those in rural areas - fall through the cracks. And the students who are "caught" are identified by all the top schools, so they are bombarded with offers.

To put it lightly, it's a system that could use some improvement.

"[T]his is not a situation in which the nation needs to be convinced that educational investments in high-achieving, low-income students are worthwhile," Hoxby writes with co-author Sarah Turner of the University of Virginia in a new policy paper for the Hamilton Project, a Brookings Institution-affiliated group. "Rather, it is a situation in which students appear to be failing to take advantage of the full range of opportunities available to them."

When high-achieving, low-income students received paperwork-free application-fee waivers and information packets that detailed the admissions standards and financial-aid policies of top schools, they applied and enrolled in them at much higher rates, the researchers' work showed.

That's great news. Now, the problem is figuring out how to implement Hoxby's idea at the national level and get college information to students; her test packets cost about $6 per pupil.

In their Hamilton research, Hoxby and Turner argue that groups like the College Board, which administers the SAT, could help. The board has access to data about where high-performing students are located. It could, for instance, send targeted brochures to students using that data.

In addition to College Board, they'd like to partner with the ACT. They also think it makes sense to send information packets to target students earlier, maybe during their junior year of high school, to give them and their families as much time to process the packets as possible.

They also say the government is in a position to help, since the Department of Education has access to data about where student aid recipients live and how much their families earn. (The department declined to comment for this story.)

Here's a chart of what they would include in each packet.