Invisible High Achievers: Reaching High-Scoring Poor Students

 

Education

Invisible High Achievers: Reaching High-Scoring Poor Students

Christopher Avery Faculty ResearcherChristopher Avery, Roy E. Larsen Professor of Public Policy and Management, Harvard Kennedy SchoolPaper Title
Missing “One-Offs”: The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low-Income StudentsCoauthor
Caroline Hoxby, Stanford University

High-achieving low-income students are actively pursued by selective colleges, which typically cost such students less to attend—owing to generous financial aid—than two-year and nonselective four-year institutions. And when those same students apply to selective institutions, they are admitted and graduate at high rates. Yet most choose not to.

This is the puzzle that Christopher Avery, Roy E. Larsen Professor of Public Policy and Management at Harvard Kennedy School, and Caroline Hoxby, of Stanford University, examine in “Missing ‘One-Offs’: The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low-Income Students.”

Using individual data for every high school student who graduated in 2008 and took either the ACT or the SAT I college assessment test, Avery and Hoxby identified the top 10 percent of test takers. (As they point out, because only 40 percent of secondary school students take a college assessment, these students represented the top 4 percent of U.S. students.) They then used a variety of data, including demographic and income information and school surveys, to paint a profile of the students, the high schools they attended, their college application history and that of their peers, and their performance in college.

The researchers found that the pool of low-income high achievers is larger than college admissions departments generally believe. The data show that 17 percent of high achievers have estimated family incomes in the lowest quartile (at or below $41,472) and number “at least 25,000 and probably about 35,000.”

“The problem is that most high-achieving, low-income students do not apply to any selective college, so they are invisible to admissions staff,” the authors write. They describe these students as “income-typical”: exhibiting behavior typical of students of their income rather than typical of students of their achievement.

Colleges feel that they exhaustively recruit poorer students, such as by guaranteeing need-blind admission, visiting a disproportionate number of high schools with large numbers of free-lunch-eligible students, and sending special letters to high achievers who live in high-poverty zip codes.

But the researchers show why traditional interventions are unlikely to change the situation, and identify others that might work better. A “student’s being an underrepresented minority is not a good proxy for his or her being low-income,” they argue. “Thus, if a college wants its student body to exhibit income diversity commensurate with the income diversity among high achievers, it cannot possibly attain this goal simply by recruiting students who are underrepresented minorities. If admissions staff do most of their outreach to low-income students by visiting schools that are largely Hispanic and black, the staff should realize that this strategy may lead to a student body that is diverse on specific racial and ethnic dimensions but that is not diverse in terms of family income.

“Income-typical students are intelligent and able to absorb written material. Thus, other interventions that might affect them would be purely informational ones, whether distributed by mail, online, or through social media. To be effective, however, such interventions must be much better targeted to low-income students than a campaign based on zip codes.”

Although the academic success experienced by high-achieving low-income students at selective institutions is similar to that of their high-income counterparts, they vastly differ in their application behavior. “Income-typical students exhibit behavior that is typical of students of their income rather than typical of students of their achievement,” the authors conclude. They encourage college admissions staff to target their recruitment efforts with that understanding.

- by Jenny Li Fowler

“Income-typical students exhibit behavior that is typical of students of their income rather than typical of students of their achievement.”