Why Smart Poor Students Don't Apply to Selective Colleges (And How to Fix It)

Ann McClure's picture
Monday, January 28, 2013

The furor over student debt in this country takes aim at a noble cause -- quality education at a good price -- but obscures an even nobler cause, which is getting more students to take on more debt to obtain more skills in a modern economy that doesn't pay living wages to uneducated workers. Seen in this light, the single most important issue in higher education isn't cost, it's really something more like advertising. If we want students from disadvantaged areas to attend good colleges and obtain modern skills, we should be thinking about ways to entice them, not scare them with blaring headlines: "SIX FIGURES IN DEBT AND UNEMPLOYED AT 22."

There's a quieter, more lower-case crisis that is potentially even more dangerous for the economy: Smart, low-income students who never consider applying to our best colleges -- even though the education would both cost less and lead to higher-paying jobs.

Some of the poorest high schoolers in the country are also among our top-performers. These "low-income, high-achieving" students come from the poorest 25 percent of families, but their grades and SAT scores place them in the top 10 -- or even top 5 percent -- of all students. Getting these students in our best colleges should be a national ambition. It would increase social mobility, raise national productivity, increase taxable income, shrink our deficit, cut income-support payments ... you get the point.

But the point is, we're failing. In fact, the majority of these smart poor students don't apply to any selective college or university, according to a new paper by Caroline M. Hoxby and Christopher Avery -- even though the most selective schools would actually cost them less, after counting financial aid. Poor students with practically the same grades as their richer classmates are 75 percent less likely to apply to selective colleges.

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