Caroline M. Hoxby – Stanford
Christopher Avery – Harvard
Among kids with good test scores and grades, who grabs for the brass ring of elite colleges and who doesn’t bother?
First, Hoxby and Avery look at kids who scored in the 90th percentile or higher on the SAT or ACT and had at least an A- average in high school. (I’m even more interested in the kids with even higher test scores but who don’t have A- averages, but they want to look at kids with plausible numbers for getting into swanky colleges.)
75.8 percent of high achievers say that they are white non-Hispanic and another 15.0 percent say that they are Asian. The remaining 9.2 percent of high achievers are associated with an underrepresented minority. They are Hispanic (4.7 percent), black non-Hispanic (1.5 percent), Native American (0.4 percent), or mixed race/ethnicity (2.6 percent).
Then they try to estimate family income. Many high school students don’t really know their family income, so the economists made some guesses based on where they live and other factors.
I’m not sure if they do a great job of this because the correlation between being a high achiever and high income is fairly moderate. For example, 17% of the high achievers come from the bottom 25% of estimated family income.
The correlation with parents’ education is much higher. Among high achievers, 51% have a parent with a graduate degree, while it looks like about 82% are children of bachelor degree holders.
Then they grouped the high achieving kids from the lowest 25% of estimated income into those whose college application behavior is “Achievement Typical” (i.e., ambitious — Ivy League here I come!) or “Income Typical” (unambitious — I don’t know, maybe I’ll join the Army and then go to State).
The authors don’t use the terms ambitious and unambitious but I’m going to use those words. What the researchers call “Achievement Typical” is applying to colleges more like other kids with the same test scores and grades. I call it Ambitious. (E.g., Wesleyan has a pipeline to Hollywood, so I may go Early Decision there.) What the researchers call “Income Typical”, I’ll call Unambitious (E.g., Everybody at school who isn’t a total meathead usually goes to the JC for a year or two, so I guess I’ll do that, but my cousin graduated from Southeastern, so maybe I’ll apply there, too.) The great majority of poor kids with high achievement follow either an unambitious path in applying to college or simply an odd one (e.g., Harvard or the local JuCo).
If I’m reading Hoxby’s Table 7 correctly, among low income but high achieving Asians, the ratio of ambitious “Achievement Typical” college applicants to unambitious “Income Typical” kids relative to all high achievement / low income kids is about four to one (31.8% of ambitious Achievement Typical low income high achievers are Asians compared to only 7.3% of unambitious Income Typical low income high achievers). In other words, the Tiger Mother myth ain’t a myth, even at the bottom of the income level for Asians.
Among Hispanics who are high achievers and low income, the relative ratio of ambitious to unambitious among low income high achievers is a little over two to one (12.6% to 6.0%). For blacks, the relative ratio of ambitious to unambitious is a little under two to one (5.2% to 2.9%).
But, low income high achievers, the ratio of ambitious to unambitious is much lower for whites than for minorities: 45.1% of the ambitious smart but poor kids are white, while 79.5% of the unambitious smart but poor kids are white. By these ratios, smart but poor Asians are about seven times more ambitious in their college application behavior than smart but poor white kids, with Hispanics and blacks several times more ambitious.
A reader emails:
– For every low-income, high-performing white kid who applies to college like a smart kid, there are 11.7 who apply like poor kids.
– For every low-income, high-performing black kid who applies to college like a smart kid, there are 3.7 who apply like poor kids.
– For every low-income, high-performing Hispanic kid who applies to college like a smart kid, there are 3.2 who apply like poor kids.
– For every low-income, high-performing Asian kid who applies to college like a smart kid, there are 1.5 who apply like poor kids.
So, for every group, there are more low-income high-performing kids who are acting like poor kids than like smart kids – but as you can see, there’s enormous variance.
What the map demonstrates is that critical masses of high-achieving students are most likely to be found in urban counties in southern New England (Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island), the Mid-Atlantic (New York, New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania), southern Florida, and coastal California from the Bay Area to San Diego.
The other critical masses are more scattered, but a person familiar with U.S. geography can pick out Chicago (especially), Houston, Dallas/Fort Worth, Atlanta, and some smaller cities. In short, if one’s goal were to visit every county where one could gather at least 100 high achievers, one could concentrate entirely on a limited number of cities on the east and west coasts and a few cities in between.
Some part of the above statement is due to the fact that high-income, highly educated parents are somewhat concentrated in the aforementioned areas and such parents, we have seen, are more likely to have high-achieving children.
However, some part of the above statement is due purely to population density. That is, even if children in all counties of the U.S. were equally likely to be high-achieving, there would still be critical masses of them in densely populated counties and vice versa. The choropleth map in Figure 7 illustrates the role of population density by showing the number of high-achieving students per 17 year old in each county. The darker a county is, the higher is its decile on this relative measure. The map makes it clear that this relative measure is far less concentrated than the absolute measure that favors dense counties. In fact, there is a belt of counties that tend to produce high achievers that runs from Minnesota and the Dakotas south through Missouri and Kansas. There are also a good number of Appalachian, Indiana, and non-coastal California but still Western counties that tend to produce high achievers. In short, if one’s goal were to meet a representative sample of high achievers, one’s trip could not be concentrated on a limited number of counties on the Coasts and a few cities in-between. …
However, achievement-typical students’ block groups are less white, and more black, Hispanic, and Asian that those of income-typical students. Achievement- typical students also have more baccalaureate degree holders in their block groups–both in absolute number (207 versus 144) and as a share of adults (22.0 percent versus 16.8 percent). This last fact suggests that income-typical students may be less likely to get advice about college from a neighbor with a degree.
Table 9 compares the geography of income-typical and achievement-typical students, and the contrast is striking. 65 percent of achievement-typical students live in the main city of an urban area, whereas only 30 percent of income-typical students do. Even within the main city residents, achievement-typical students are much more likely to live in a large urban area (one with population greater than 250,000). Indeed, 70 percent of the achievement-typical students come from just fifteen urban areas: San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, San Diego, Dallas, Houston, Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Portland, Boston, Providence, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Only 21 percent of achievement-typical students live in a non-urban area (not necessarily rural, but a town rather than an urban area suburb). 47 percent of income-typical students live in a non-urban area. Put another way, income-typical students tend to be the high-achievers who live in counties that had a large number of high-achievers per 17-year-old (Figure 7) but not a large number of achievers in absolute terms (Figure 6).
… The radius needed to gather 50 high-achievers is 37.3 miles for the average income-typical student, where as it is merely 12.2 miles for the average achievement-typical student.