Missed Opportunities for Low-Income High-Achieving Students

March 20, 2013
by Doug Gavel, Harvard Kennedy School Communications

Many of the nation’s elite universities are missing out on some of the most qualified students from low-income backgrounds. That is the finding in a new National Bureau of Economic Research paper co-authored by Stanford University Professor Caroline M. Hoxby and Harvard Kennedy School Professor Christopher Avery.

Hoxby and Avery examined test scores and college admissions data for millions of U.S. students to better understand and interpret the higher education choices made by two distinct groups of high-achievers—those from low-income compared to high-income households.

“The vast majority of high-achieving, low-income students do not apply to any selective college,” the authors write. “These students exhibit behavior that is typical of students of their income rather than typical of students of their achievement.”

The authors found that those students who bucked the trend often benefitted from their geographic location.

“The majority of achievement-typical students are drawn from only fifteen urban areas, in each of which there is at least one and often several selective colleges. We believe that this phenomenon occurs because many colleges are ‘searching under the lamp-post.’ That is, many colleges look for low-income students where the college is instead of looking for low-income students where the students are,” they write.

Hoxby and Avery suggest that university officials need to re-think their strategies if they wish to recruit more high-achieving low-income students onto their campuses.

“…widely-used policies–college admissions staff recruiting, college campus visits, college access programs–are likely to be ineffective with income-typical students, and we suggest policies that will be effective must depend less on geographic location of high achievers,” they conclude.

Christopher N. Avery is the Roy E. Larsen Professor of Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School where he teaches analytic courses in microeconomics and statistics. Avery studies rating and selection mechanisms, focusing on the college admissions system.

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Photograph of classroom

Many university classrooms are devoid of low-income high-performing students, not because they don't exist, but because they aren't applying nor being recruited by select schools.

“The vast majority of high-achieving, low-income students do not apply to any selective college,” the authors write. “These students exhibit behavior that is typical of students of their income rather than typical of students of their achievement.”