A Modern Fable

Or… how low-income, high-achieving students can gain admission to elite colleges

Two recent studies on low-income, high-achieving high school students and the problems they face in gaining admission to elite private schools have attracted considerable attention in both the education and mainstream media.

The first, Expanding College Opportunities for High-Achieving, Low Income Students, by Caroline Hoxby and Sarah Taylor (Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, March 29, 2013) received attention from The New York Times (editorial on April 10, following an article by David Leonhardt on March 16 regarding an earlier study by Dr. Hoxby). The second Hoxby study found that customized information packets, costing about $6 each, sent to low-income, high-achieving students significantly increased the percentage of these students who applied to top-tier colleges. Inside Higher Ed covered this study on April 1, 2013.

The second study, Undermining Pell: How Colleges Compete for Wealthy Students and Leave the Low-Income Behind (Steven Burd, the New America Foundation, May 8, 2013), examined actual data from the 2010-11 academic year for thousands of public and private colleges to determine the average cost for Pell-eligible students at each college and university. The study found that two-thirds of the private institutions charged families earning less than $30,000 per year a net price of over $15,000 a year. As a consequence, the study called for federal action “to ensure that colleges continue to provide a gateway to opportunity.” The Chronicle of Higher Education covered this study on May 8, and The Boston Globe ran a lengthy story that related to the study on May 28.

These two studies are interesting bookends to the same issue: low-income students, even when they are high-achieving in high school, are much less likely to apply to elite schools, and even when they do, they often face insurmountable costs.

These findings provide additional evidence that, as I have said before in this blog, our country is moving farther and farther away from a true meritocracy. So will these two studies shame us into doing better?

I regret to say that a better outcome is very unlikely, at least in the short term.

Consider the magnitude of the problem. The earlier Hoxby study found that only 34 percent of high-achieving students in the bottom quartile of family income enrolled in the 238 most selective colleges and universities, in comparison to 78 percent of high-achieving students in the top quartile of family income. At least some of the difference in attendance rates was due to insufficient information available to the low-income students, and that problem was fairly easily rectified: with better information, application rates rose by 19 percent.

But the sheer magnitude of the problem is daunting, as was pointed out by Wick Sloane, a community college instructor, in an article for Bloomberg View (May 23, 2013). He noted that there are 9.4 million students in this country who receive Pell grants (one measure of low-income status). With that figure in mind, consider that there are fewer than 200,000 freshman seats in the 238 most selective colleges. Even if 10 percent of these seats were reserved for additional numbers of high-achieving, low-income students (thereby displacing a like number of middle- and higher-income students), and 20,000 more low-income students enrolled as a consequence, what about the other 9.38 million Pell grant students? To be sure, only 4 percent of students meet the definition of “very high achieving” – but that still would amount to 380,000 students. Admitting 20,000 more low-income, high-achieving students still leaves 360,000 such students on the sidelines.

Moreover, as the New America Foundation study found, the net price paid by low-income students at the majority of these very selective colleges exceeds $15,000 per year – so to achieve the goal of increasing the number of enrolled low-income, high-achieving students, the colleges would need to offer much more generous financial aid packages. That is by no means a given: many of these colleges, while selective, are not necessarily affluent.

Finally, let’s remember that there are 18 million undergraduates in this country and, rich or poor, not very many of them are attending the 238 most selective colleges. Herein lies the heart of the problem: not every qualified student can attend a top-tier college or university, because there just aren’t enough seats.

Does that mean all the other students, who must attend “lesser” schools are doomed? Of course not – and yet, just below the surface, that seems to be what is implied by these studies, and the commentaries that accompany them.

Consider this quote from The New York Times editorial, From Poverty to a Top-Tier College (April 10, 2013): “Flummoxed by the admissions process and scared off by what they [low-income, high-achieving students] think will be unmanageable costs, many of these students settle for lesser colleges with lower graduation rates, less financial aid (which means more debt) and less marketable degrees.”

Wow! These kids really are doomed!

Let’s take The Times’ statement apart. Do “lesser” colleges have lower graduation rates? Well, graduation rates strongly correlate with how selective a given college is, and selectivity is focused on the level of high school achievement and standardized test scores – so if the point is that high-achieving students tend to have higher graduation rates (and being high achieving is what caused the very selective colleges to choose them in the first place), then, yes, top-tier colleges have higher graduation rates than do less selective institutions.

But it doesn’t follow that high-achieving students who attend a less selective institution will themselves have lower graduation rates, just because the school has a lower graduation rate overall. Smart students generally do well, regardless of where they attend college. They might do better at a very selective college with other high-achieving students – but many students from impoverished backgrounds find themselves feeling very out of place when surrounded by the relatively affluent students who make up the majority of the students at highly selective institutions, and feeling out of place is not conducive to high graduation rates.

“Less financial aid?” The point of the New America Foundation study was that many highly selective colleges are very expensive for low-income students – so, it’s not a given that they will receive less financial aid at a less selective institution, most of which have substantially lower sticker prices in the first place.

“More debt?” Not necessarily so. Many low-income students commute to college, saving a ton on room and board costs. Unless the highly selective college is prepared to be very generous with its aid packages, it’s likely that the students will graduate with more debt than if they had attended a good, but less selective (and less expensive) school.

“Less marketable degrees?” Really? It may well be that a classics major from Harvard will be offered a job over a classics major from a lower-ranked institution – if either of them can get a job offer in the first place. But I know that a construction management or engineering major from Roger Williams University in today’s market is much more likely to get a job – and at a good salary – than a classics major from Harvard.

Gone are the days when an Ivy League degree guaranteed multiple attractive job offers, and The Times should know better.

So what’s the answer? The answer is that we are wasting our collective time and energy if we think that by shoehorning a few more low-income, high-achieving students into the top 238 colleges we have really solved a problem. (See my April 1 post, Where Should the Talented Poor Attend College?) Rather, the answer is to do the following:

  • As a country, and as institutional leaders, we must strive to increase the number of well-regarded colleges and universities – places with high educational standards and very good graduation rates. Greater philanthropic support for second-tier colleges would allow them to move to first-tier status (a point I expanded on in my January 28 post, A Modest Proposal);
  • Parents and students alike need to stop obsessing about being accepted by a nationally ranked institution, and, if they are not accepted, whether they are destined to be marginalized for life as a consequence;
  • They should focus instead on finding a good fit for a particular student’s interests, abilities and financial capacity, and on ensuring that he or she receives an education that is both marketable today and allows advancement tomorrow.

There is no question that money and social position confers advantages, even when it comes to access to top-tier colleges (see, for example, The Boston Globe article of July 5, 2013, Wealth Gap Limits Equality of Education, where it was noted that high-income families spend seven times as much on private tutoring, SAT prep courses, and the like, as do low-income families). But rather than railing about the unfairness of it all, we would be better off if we focused on improving the K-12 system to the point that more students were prepared to be successful at college.

Better prepared students in K-12, with higher college graduation rates as a consequence, would do far more to allow social mobility and advance a meritocracy than will dwelling on finding ways to get a few more low-income, high achieving students into elite colleges.