The smartest low-income teens rarely enroll in the country's top colleges and the reason is more obvious than you'd think: They don't apply.
Stanford economics professor Caroline Hoxby says cost isn't the reason – high-achieving, low-income students actually pay less to attend a very selective college than the nonselective ones they usually attend.
It also isn't the fees associated with applying. Low-income students are eligible for application fee waivers if they file the right paperwork.
And it isn't that colleges are ignoring them – the country's most selective colleges try to recruit low-income students by visiting hundreds of high schools, inviting students to campus and working with numerous college mentoring organizations.
What's more, in a recent study Hoxby and Professor Christopher Avery of Harvard demonstrate that high-achieving, low-income students who do apply to very selective colleges are admitted and graduate at the same rates as their high-income peers with similar achievement.
So what is the reason these students don't apply? Experts speculate that students are either poorly informed about their college choices or just did not want to attend selective colleges. For example, students might believe top colleges cost much more when they really cost less. Stanford's financial aid program, for example, covers tuition for undergraduates from households with incomes of $100,000 or less. Those with incomes below $60,000 pay no tuition, room or board.
Or perhaps low-income, high-achieving students want to attend the same postsecondary institutions that other students from their high schools often pick – even if these institutions have low graduation rates and slender instructional resources.
It's one thing if students don't apply because they know about their college-going opportunities and don't want to attend, Hoxby said. It's quite another if they are under-informed.
"If a child has managed, despite coming from a low-income family, to become extremely well prepared for college, it is a huge waste if she fails to get a great college education simply because she doesn't know that she could," Hoxby said.
It's a waste not just for the student but for the university she could attend as well. If a university can enroll a student who is just as prepared but brings more socio-economic diversity to its student body, a wider array of ideas may flourish in its classrooms.
To figure out whether low-income, high-achieving students would choose different colleges if they were better informed, Hoxby and Professor Sarah Turner of the University of Virginia devised and tested new recruiting tools to inform students about their college-going opportunities. The Expanding College Opportunities program was tested on about 40,000 students using a randomized controlled trial.
"The Expanding College Opportunities tools are very different from traditional recruiting methods in three ways," Hoxby said. "First, they are so inexpensive – about $6 per student – that they could be used with every high-achieving student in the U.S. Second, they intensively use 'big data' so that every student sees customized information. Third, they do not promote any particular college. Rather, they try to help students understand their local options in the context of all their options."
Students targeted by the project received the same sort of information and reminders that they might receive if an expert counselor were guiding them through the college application process. But, in this case, the information comes not in person but through the mail and online.
"We showed students how to find colleges for which they were best prepared academically. We had them compare colleges' graduation rates and instructional resources. In other words, we tried to help them make wise decisions for themselves," Hoxby said.
Students were also confronted with information about the differences between colleges' "sticker price" and the actual net costs they could expect to pay.
"We could not tell students exactly what they would pay for any given college," said Hoxby, "but we tried to give them a wake-up call. 'Hey! As sticker prices go up, net costs go down for low-income, high-achieving students. If you want to go to a college, apply. Don't rule yourself out.'"
Students received application fee waivers, with no paperwork, that allowed them to apply to eight of about 200 selective colleges for free.
"Low-income students are already eligible for fee waivers," said Hoxby, "so what we did was eliminate the modest paperwork." Related research shows that apparently small paperwork barriers deter some applicants.
Hoxby and Turner found that the Expanding College Opportunities intervention caused low-income, high-achieving students to apply and be admitted to a wider array of colleges, and caused them to enroll in colleges with higher graduation rates and greater instructional resources.
Students who received the intervention submitted 48 percent more applications than those who did not, and they were 56 percent more likely to apply to a "peer" institution where other students also have high grades and instruction is geared toward people like them, the study found.
The students were 78 percent more likely to be admitted by a peer institution and 46 percent more likely to enroll in a peer institution. The intervention caused students to enroll in colleges with 26 percent greater instructional resources.
The researchers said the program could yield a substantial payoff for students. For each $10 spent on the program, the interventions caused students to have college experiences that will likely translate into an extra $222,990 to $567,821 in higher lifetime earnings.
Also, for every $10 spent, the intervention has effects that are at least 275 times greater than in-person counseling interventions targeted to the same types of students, the researchers said.
Hoxby emphasized that enabling low-income, high-achieving students to realize their full range of college opportunities is not just about earnings.
"These students can become leaders who spread the word to low-income communities that education can be transformative. They can transcend their initial circumstances and inspire others to do it too," she said.
Why hasn't this type of intervention been used already since it appears it could transform the college application landscape?
First, the researchers say, the data on students hasn't previously been available to power this type of intervention.
"We were the first to figure out how to combine enormous amounts of data in order to identify low-income, high-achieving students and tailor the information to their circumstances," Hoxby said.
And second, it would not make sense for a single institution to undertake such a project every year. This is a task for collective action, the paper says. A natural host for such a project would be a pan-collegiate organization or other organization with social goals.
The paper, "Expanding College Opportunities for High-Achieving, Low-Income Students," is online at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research and also will be published as a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper. Hoxby is on the faculty of the Center for Education Policy Analysis at the Stanford Graduate School of Education.
Brooke Donald is a writer at Stanford News Service.