Study: Low-income achievers aim low

Low-income, high-scoring students usually don’t apply to selective colleges and universities, even though they’d qualify for financial aid, according to The Missing One-Offs: The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low-Income Students, a working paper by Caroline M. Hoxby and Christopher Avery. Those who do apply are as likely to be admitted and graduate as high-income students.

Among students in the top 10 percent on college-entrance exams, but the bottom quartile in income, those in large, urban districts were the most likely to apply to selective colleges. Larger districts can offer selective or magnet high school that expose disadvantaged students to classmates and teachers with high expectations, Hoxby and Avery speculate.

“Open selective public high schools in more areas to reach more high-flying students,” suggests Amber Winkler on Gadfly.


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  1. Crimson Wife says:

    It’s been my observation that there are a couple factors at work here.

    #1 is a lack of understanding that the very high “sticker price” at elite private universities is essentially meaningless for lower-income families. I’ve heard a number of lower-income families state that they will not permit their children to apply anywhere except the local state college because they don’t have $50k per year to spend even though they would actually qualify for free tuition at many of the top schools.

    #2 is a stickier issue. Sometimes parents who themselves aren’t highly educated have chips on their shoulder towards selective schools and take an “you feel you’re better than me?” attitude. My IL’s were like this, and my DH got into a huge fight with them when he applied to Stanford on the encouragement of one of his teachers and got accepted. FIL is a college graduate, but from a no-name local school and he felt that if that was good enough for him, it should be good enough for DH.

    • Crimson- #1 is a huge problem, even with middle class families. I frequently have to explain to other home schoolers that it may be less expensive for their child to go to the University of Chicago or Princeton than to the state school. Especially since once you have 4 or 5 kids, the cut off for ‘middle class’ is really high,… close to what our local doctors are making, since cost of living and salaries are fairly low in the midwest…

  2. CW: I have read that your #2 is very likely to be a significant factor for low-SES kids, in terms of college success or lack thereof (esp. at elites) The need to make academics the top priority often places such students in direct conflict with family and community, for whom the personal is the priority. In fact, I have read comments from those identifying themselves as coming from low-SES families that say it’s best to live separately from family (even if attending a local school) and to keep contact to a minimum. They made specific mention of the desirability of shedding old boy/girlfriends, also. One said that his rule was to spend all of his time not just with other students, but with those who shared his goals. Looking back, after grad school, he said that was even more important than he realized at the time, because he learned not only the academic material but the “background knowledge” (speech, dress, habits, values etc) of the upper-middle class. He said he would never have had the grad school and career opportunities without that. I’m sure it wasn’t easy. I think that’s something that should be discussed with kids, during HS, along with the things I mentioned under the no-excuses schools.