Colleges Struggle to Connect With High-Achieving Poor Students

Few top poor students apply to elite colleges, but that could change.

March 18, 2013, 4:18 PM

March 18, 2013— -- 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.

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."

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