Blog: The Educated Reporter

A Different Class: Why Talented Students Don’t Apply to Top Colleges

In a recent post on young men of color and academic success, I mentioned a study which looked at “under-matching:” high-achieving minority students enrolling at less-competive colleges that had fewer resources to help them reach their potential.

I’ve had some requests for more on this issue, so I thought I’d share a session from EWA’s 66th National Seminar, held in May at Stanford University. Today’s guest blogger is Mackenzie Ryan of Florida Today.

Few low-income, high-achieving students apply to selective colleges and universities. College admissions staffs typically see eight to 15 high-income applications for every application from a low-income student. According to conventional wisdom, most of these low-income students don’t have the qualifications to get in.

Stanford University Professor Caroline Hoxby disagrees. By her estimates, that application ratio should be closer to 2-to-1. An estimated 35,000 low-income students have the qualifications to get into one of the top 238 colleges or universities, she said. They’re just not applying.

Those students do attend college – but often at less-selective institutions that don’t offer as much financial aid. That means many students are missing scholarship or grant opportunities available at more selective institutions.

“They were paying more to pay less, in a sense,” Hoxby said, a leading economist. The consequences of the decision not to apply to a more selective college can be significant. For students, a degree from a selective college can mean hundreds of thousands of dollars in income over a lifetime. For institutions, a socioeconomic diverse student body enriches learning.

Hoxby’s research has revealed a number of insights into why high-achieving low-income students don’t apply – even though they are well matched with certain colleges, and still others would have been “safety schools.”

“Either it was: ‘I don’t want to leave my community and my family and my friends’,” she said. “Or: ‘I have a high school counselor. They tried to give me advice, but I didn’t get the advice I need to get through this process.’”

Guidance counselors at many schools that have large populations of low-income students have developed the skills they need to serve their student populations, she said. That could mean dealing with broken homes, parent substance abuse or dropout students.

“When the really high-achieving student waltzes in to discuss college,” Hoxby said, “I think what you say is ‘Great! Go!’ It doesn’t mean that they’re not trying, it just means that it’s not their area of expertise.”

Hoxby’s solution? Help guide low-income students through a customized college application process. Through a massive and confidential database, relevant material is sorted for individual students. Information on in-state and out-of-state public and private colleges is then randomly sent to high-achieving, low-income students, along with information on financial aid and college-admissions tests like the SAT. In addition, students receive customized emails and postcards, which serve as “the nagging mom and dad,” reminding them of upcoming deadlines.

This intervention is cheap – about $6 per student. Already, groups like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have signed on to help fund the initiative.

“The interventions really worked,” Hoxby said. Low-income, high-achieving students were 78 percent more likely to be admitted and 50 percent more likely to enroll in a selective college or university.

Larry Gordon of the Los Angeles Times has followed several recruiters for selective universities. He’s found that they do try to recruit low-income students – but it’s one of multiple priorities they juggle. “They do want diversity,” he said. But there are many stakeholders to please: “They have to make the alumni happy, the physics department, the flutists, the jocks. They have a lot on their plate.”

There’s also a large disconnect from the lives of a low-income student to the Ivy-League colleges and their manicured campuses. One low-income high school Gordon visited was practically under a freeway, near blocks burned during the riots. “The world of these children is about as far as you can get from these colleges,” he said.

Have a question, comment or concern for the Educated Reporter? Email EWA public editor Emily Richmond at Follow her on Twitter: @EWAEmily.