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Low-income, High-achieving Students Less Likely to Apply to Selective Colleges, Study Finds

By Zohra D. Yaqhubi, Crimson Staff Writer

The overwhelming majority of very high-achieving, low-income students choose not to apply to the most selective colleges in the nation, according to a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research that will be published in the spring 2013 Brookings Papers on Economic Activity.

The analysis, authored by education researchers Caroline M. Hoxby ’88, an economics professor at Stanford, and Christopher N. Avery ’88, professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, found that only 34 percent of high-achieving high school seniors from the bottom quartile of the income distribution went on to attend one of the country’s highly-ranked selective schools.

In contrast, students from high-income backgrounds with the same grades and test scores—a grade point average of at least an A- and scores at or above the 90th percentile in the ACT or SAT I—were much more likely to apply to selective colleges where average student achievement was close to their own. For high-achieving students coming from the top quartile of income, 78 percent ended up at a highly-selective college. This disparity persists despite the fact that “high-achieving, low-income students who do apply to selective institutions are admitted and graduate at high rates,” the study stated.

Hoxby and Avery noted that current outreach attempts made by selective colleges may be insufficient to attract high-achieving, low-income applicants. According to the study, these students are “very unlikely to encounter a teacher, counselor or neighbor who attended a selective college.” The authors also found that such students are often geographically dispersed, making it difficult for admissions officers to visit their schools in person.

According to Bari Norman, former admissions counselor and current president of Expert Admissions, the study highlights the fact that even schools like Harvard “have work to do” to bring in more undergraduates from under-privileged backgrounds.

But Norman added that Harvard’s financial resources are a major factor allowing the school to reach out to a broader range of students in ways that “most other colleges just can’t.”

“It does require a tremendous amount of financial commitment to find these people and keep them there,” Norman said. “I think it’s the responsibility of colleges not only to find these students, but to have the proper financial support to keep them there.”

The new study, which has received widespread attention, suggests that the lack of higher education opportunities for high-achieving, low-income students is more acute than previously believed. “Colleges are missing the mark in looking more exclusively on race and not on income and socioeconomic status,” Norman said. “I’m glad the conversation is becoming a national one.”

—Staff writer Zohra D. Yaqhubi can be reached at zyaqhubi@college.harvard.edu. Follow her on Twitter @zohradyaqhubi.

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