Why Top Colleges Aren't Attracting High-Achieving Poor Students

A new study shows they need targeted information about financial aid.

April 2, 2013— -- High-achieving poor students are less likely to apply to top colleges, even when the schools offer scholarships and career preparation programs that make it more likely for that education to pay off in the future.

The trend was documented in a a follow-up to that study shows simply providing those students with some basic information -- like the fact that hefty scholarships for poor students exist at top colleges in the first place -- can have a profound impact. It's not that most students don't want to attend top schools, the study found, it's that they are not sure how to get there.

See Also: Colleges Struggle to Connect With High-Achieving Poor Students

As part of the follow-up study, which was conducted by Caroline Hoxby of Stanford University and Sarah Turner of the University of Virginia, a group of 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. A control group did not receive either.

The packets cost just $6 per student, and the results are encouraging. Students who received the packets were far more likely to apply and enroll at colleges that matched their academic qualifications. Once there, the study found, they are just as likely to succeed and get good grades as their peers who enrolled in less-selective colleges.

Hoxby told ABC/Univision in March that organizations like College Board, which sponsors the SAT, could be valuable when it comes to getting targeted packets into the hands of high-performing, low-income students.

David Coleman, the president of the College Board, told the New York Times he is considering sending similar packets to students. The College Board did not immediately respond to a request for confirmation.

One of the criticisms of race-based affirmative action, which is currently making its way through the Supreme Court, is that it creates racial diversity but not socioeconomic diversity. Admitted minority kids often come from upper-income families. The packets could help change that.

"Benefit-to-cost ratios for the ECO-C Intervention," the authors argue, "are extremely high."