A Simple Way to Send Poor Kids to Top Colleges by David Leonhardt

High-Achieving, Low-Income Seniors’ College Decisions

In this New York Times article, David Leonhardt reports on an experiment designed to 

see what leads well-prepared seniors from low-income communities to apply to – or not apply to – highly selective colleges. “The results are now in,” he reports on the study conducted by Caroline Hoxby and Sarah Turner, “and they suggest that basic information can substantially increase the number of low-income students who apply to, attend, and graduate from top colleges.” 

Here’s how the study was conducted. Researchers identified high-school seniors in low-income communities whose SAT scores showed they could be successful in top-tier colleges. One group of students received a package of brightly colored brochures describing top colleges’ admission standards, graduation rates, financial aid packages (a low-income student pays only $1,300 a year at Harvard), and other information – a proxy for the type of college counseling that more-privileged students take for granted. The packets explained application deadlines and student qualifications for each college and gave students a coupon that waived application fees. The control group of comparably proficient low-income seniors received nothing; they depended on their guidance counselors and personal networks. 

Only 30 percent of the students in the control group got into colleges matching their academic qualifications. Of the students who received the information packages, 54 percent got into achievement-appropriate colleges. David Coleman, the newly appointed president of the College Board, was so struck by the results that he is planning to revamp the information he sends out to high schools. “We can’t stand by as students, particularly low-income students, go off track and don’t pursue the opportunities they have earned,” he said. 

In an era in which race-based affirmative action is in full retreat, economic diversity is the new gold standard – a standard on which many top colleges do poorly. “The new research shows that large numbers of talented, well-prepared low-income teenagers exist,” says Leonhardt. “And many of them want to attend selective colleges, once they understand the options… Not so long ago, many elite colleges resembled finishing schools for well-off white Protestant men. By any measure, the colleges have changed enormously. They are far more meritocratic than they once were. They just aren’t yet as meritocratic as they claim to be.”

So what’s wrong with going to a less-prestigious college? Don’t many graduates of those institutions do quite well? True, but those colleges have much lower graduation rates, even for high-achieving students. Research by William Bowen, Michael McPherson, and Matthew Gingos found that even top students who attended community colleges often didn’t graduate, greatly diminishing their life chances. “They are likely to graduate from top colleges in far greater numbers than from colleges many now attend,” says Leonhardt. “And the more-affluent (and slightly less deserving) students they displace will move down only a notch on the college spectrum and still do very well.” 

“A Simple Way to Send Poor Kids to Top Colleges” by David Leonhardt in The New York Times, Mar. 31, 2013 (p. SR5), http://nyti.ms/12Vyg17

From the Marshall Memo #483

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