Why Low-Income Students Shy Away From Top Schools

Study hard and get good grades, so you can have a better – or, at least, a more financially secure – life than your parents. For decades, this belief has been a core component of the American dream. Because of that, you might think that high achievers from low-income families would be applying to the best schools in the country, whenever and wherever they can. Unfortunately, this is not the case at all. This topic has been the subject of many studies and debates in recent time. Caroline M. Hoxby of Stanford and Christopher Avery of Harvard published some interesting findings in their joint paper, “The Missing ‘One-Offs’: The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low Income Students.” They compared two groups of low-income, high-achieving students – those who included selective schools in their application mix and those who didn’t.

One of the biggest observations made by the researchers was that those in the latter group were “fairly isolated from other high achievers, both in terms of geography and in terms of the high schools they attend” and they had “only a negligible probability of meeting a teacher, high school counselor, or schoolmate from an older cohort who herself attended a selective college.”

In short, these students had likely never connected with anyone who had gone to a selective college. Further, it was even more unlikely that an admissions representative from one of these institutions had visited their high school.

Alexandria Walton Radford discusses similar findings in her book, Top Student, Top School?: How Social Class Shapes Where Valedictorians Go to College.

As Jon Marcus mentions in his review of the book,

“Only 3 percent of students at the nation’s 146 most selective colleges and universities are from the bottom 25 percent of the income scale. And Radford says it’s not necessarily because they’re less academically well prepared than students at the top.”

In her research, Radford found that low-income students tended to base their college-application decisions on advice from parents since many public high schools don’t even have a full-time college counselor. Due to lack of understanding about the financial aid process, many of these parents assumed that selective schools weren’t an option they would be able to afford even if their kids were admitted. So, despite being academically prepared, the students didn’t even apply.

There are, of course, other factors that come into play, but the general consensus seems to point to the fact that parents and students from low-income families need better access to easier-to-understand information about financial aid and college admission options. But how?

Should the financial aid application process be made simpler and more transparent? Should the burden be placed on institutions to look for better ways to attract and recruit high-achieving, low-income students?