Smart, Poor Kids Are Applying to the Wrong Colleges

Tim Goral's picture
Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Each year, middle-class American high-school seniors with good grades go through a familiar ritual of the college application process. They file a bunch of applications—perhaps after visiting several schools—submitting test scores, grades, essays, and letters of recommendation. They apply to a “reach” school or two and a “safety” school or two along with some in the middle.

The idea is to see where you can get in and then decide where you want to go after researching both the quality of the schools on offer and the actual financial cost of attending. It’s a system that’s a bit stressful and annoying, but it basically works. Students get matched with schools that roughly suit their level of academic preparation and people have a chance to shop around a bit for the myriad forms of financial aid that make college attendance feasible.

But it doesn’t work for poor kids. It turns out that over and above all the other disadvantages one faces growing up poor in America, the majority of high-achieving kids from low-income backgrounds fail to apply to any selective colleges.

This grim discovery comes from Caroline Hoxby of Stanford’s economics department and Christopher Avery from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. It adds to our understanding of structural inequality in America and the striking barriers to social mobility. But in a sense it’s an optimistic story, suggesting that there continues to be plenty of low-hanging fruit in American education. Relatively simple reforms could unlock a great deal of currently wasted talent, with big payoffs for poor kids and society at large.

Most high-achieving students—defined as those with SAT or ACT scores in the top 10 percent—come from high-income families. Thirty-four percent are from the top quartile, and 27 percent are in the next quartile. Just 17 percent of high-achieving students are from families estimated to be in the bottom quartile of the income distribution. But while low-income students are underrepresented among high achievers, 17 percent is still a lot of people—something like 25,000 to 35,000 per year. Of those, about 70 percent are white, 15 percent Asian, and 15 percent black or Hispanic.

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