By DAVID LEONHARDT
Most low-income students who have top test scores and grades do not even apply to the nation’s best colleges, according to a new analysis of every high school student who took the SAT in a recent year.
The pattern contributes to widening economic inequality and low levels of mobility in this country, economists say, because college graduates earn so much more on average than nongraduates do. Low-income students who excel in high school often do not graduate from the less selective colleges they attend.
With exceptions such as Caltech, Reed, and many engineering programs, elite colleges tend to coddle their students to make sure they graduate, while less selective colleges have a more sink or swim approach. It’s the opposite of what most people assume.
Only 34 percent of high-achieving high school seniors in the bottom fourth of income distribution attended any one of the country’s 238 most selective colleges, according to the analysis, conducted by Caroline M. Hoxby of Stanford and Christopher Avery of Harvard, two longtime education researchers.
Among top students in the highest income quartile, that figure was 78 percent.
The findings underscore that elite public and private colleges, despite a stated desire to recruit an economically diverse group of students, have largely failed to do so.
Many top low-income students instead attend community colleges or four-year institutions closer to their homes, the study found. The students often are unaware of the amount of financial aid available or simply do not consider a top college because they have never met someone who attended one, according to the study’s authors, other experts and high school guidance counselors.
“A lot of low-income and middle-income students have the inclination to stay local, at known colleges, which is understandable when you think about it,” said George Moran, a guidance counselor at Central Magnet High School in Bridgeport, Conn. “They didn’t have any other examples, any models — who’s ever heard of Bowdoin College?”
There’s a lot to be said for staying fairly local in that one reason for going to college is to develop a social network that you can stay in touch with after college. Bowdoin in Maine is a long way from where most people will wind up. On the other hand, it tends to be nicer to have a social network of the kind of people who can get into Bowdoin than into the local JC.
Whatever the reasons, the choice frequently has major consequences. The colleges that most low-income students attend have fewer resources and lower graduation rates than selective colleges, and many students who attend a local college do not graduate. Those who do graduate can miss out on the career opportunities that top colleges offer.
The big problem is that Wall Street sucks up such a large fraction of the nation’s income, and Wall Street firms don’t bother recruiting widely. Before 1982, when Wall Street wasn’t so ungodly rich, it didn’t matter much that investment banks didn’t recruit widely. Now, it does. Yet, while I’m all in favor of shaming Goldman Sachs into spending the money to recruit at, say, the U. of Oklahoma (which has a very large number of National Merit Scholars), the bigger question is how much money Wall Street makes.
The new study is beginning to receive attention among scholars and college officials because it is more comprehensive than other research on college choices. The study suggests that the problems, and the opportunities, for low-income students are larger than previously thought.
“It’s pretty close to unimpeachable — they’re drawing on a national sample,” said Tom Parker, the dean of admissions at Amherst College, which has aggressively recruited poor and middle-class students in recent years. That so many high-achieving, lower-income students exist “is a very important realization,” Mr. Parker said, and he suggested that colleges should become more creative in persuading them to apply.
Top low-income students in the nation’s 15 largest metropolitan areas do often apply to selective colleges, according to the study, which was based on test scores, self-reported data, and census and other data for the high school class of 2008.
I think they are guesstimating parents’ income based on certain approximations.
But such students from smaller metropolitan areas — like Bridgeport; Memphis; Sacramento; Toledo, Ohio; and Tulsa, Okla. — and rural areas typically do not.
I.e., Red State America.
These students, Ms. Hoxby said, “lack exposure to people who say there is a difference among colleges.”
The older I get, the more I become a contra-contrarian. Yeah, sure, I could gin up an argument about why, when you stop and think about it, it’s better to go to Southeastern Louisiana U. than to Tulane; but, truthfully, the general pattern is that nice things tend to be nicer than not so nice things, and that the nice things that rich and powerful people choose for their own families tend to be nicer than the things that not rich and powerful people get stuck with.
Elite colleges may soon face more pressure to recruit poor and middle-class students, if the Supreme Court restricts race-based affirmative action. A ruling in the case, involving the University of Texas, is expected sometime before late June.
Colleges currently give little or no advantage in the admissions process to low-income students, compared with more affluent students of the same race, other research has found. A broad ruling against the University of Texas affirmative action program could cause colleges to take into account various socioeconomic measures, including income, neighborhood and family composition. Such a step would require an increase in these colleges’ financial aid spending but would help them enroll significant numbers of minority students.
Among high-achieving, low-income students, 6 percent were black, 8 percent Latino, 15 percent Asian-American and 69 percent white, the study found.
In other words, Asians tend to be self-propelled and NAMs are heavily recruited, which leaves whites.
Back in January, a reader looked at high achievers in the bottom quartile of income and determined how many apply to colleges like the smart kids they are or like the poor kids they are:
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 by race.
– 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.
– 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 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 white kid who applies to college like a smart kid, there are 11.7 who apply like poor kids.
So, the biggest undertapped resource of smart poor kids in this country are whites. The picture I have in my head is: rural, small town, or exurban, male, and family trouble. Some of this is the fault of elite institutions, some of this is the fault of white people, who need to up their game to compete with the tiger cubs and the affirmative action beneficiaries.