Why Gifted, Low-Income Students Don't Go To The Best Colleges

On Sunday, the New York Times ran an article based on a study on the lack of socioeconomic diversity at the nation's top colleges. Caroline Hoxby, one of the study's authors, told NPR that even after Harvard changed its financial aid policies to offer an essentially free education to students from families earning less than $40,000 a year:

The number of students whose families had income below that threshold changed by only about 15 students, and the class at Harvard is about 1,650 freshmen.

David Leonhardt summed the disparity up well:

Only 34 percent of high-achieving high school seniors in the bottom fourth of income distribution attended any one of the country’s 238 most selective colleges, according to the analysis...Among top students in the highest income quartile, that figure was 78 percent.

If you are from a rich family, I would imagine there is a high level of expectation, possibly going back your whole life, that you will apply to and attend a prestigious school. In many cases, the expectation is that you will be a "legacy" attending your parents' alma mater.

In their research, Hoxby and Avery found that vast majority of low-income students (nearly 70 percent) attending elite colleges hail from just 15 large metropolitan areas. What makes those students special? The study's authors suggest that it is because those students have greater access to a network of peers and mentors (as well as college recruiters visiting their schools) who help them to dream big.

Hoxby told the Times that low-income students in smaller metros and in rural areas "lack exposure to people who say there is a difference among colleges."

I get the difference. I was a first generation student applying for college from rural Pennsylvania. Despite graduating second in my high school class, I was steered toward lower priced state schools, community colleges, secretarial school, and military service. It was not that my teachers and counselors, or even parents, wanted less for me. It was the limits of their experience, and mine, that suggested that track. Enough luck (and it was luck) prevailed at the outset of my college career that I wound up with the chance to work hard at an Ivy League school. 

It is a potentially interesting time for those who care about first generation college students. In his article Leonhardt observes that Hoxby and Avery's work is drawing new attention among college administrators to the complexity of issues surrounding low-income students and access and affordability. They're not alone. Catharine Hill, president of Vassar, wrote an interesting piece for the Washington Post last November, based on a decade of research and teaching about the economics of higher education. The article includes an invaluable link to many studies in which Hill examines the admissions and financial aid practices of the country's elite colleges and students from low-income families and points out: 

The largest [government] subsidies go to those who attend the highest-priced schools, which tend also to be the most selective.

Hill's own research and that of Hoxby and Avery show that the most selective, highest priced schools recruit and enroll disproportionately more higher income students than lower-income students—even when academic talent and preparedness are held constant.

Hill hits the nail on the head when she talks about the policy implications of this: 

It is an open question whether an additional dollar of public spending would serve the public good more if spent on higher-achieving rather than lower-achieving students, but there is no reason to think an extra dollar on a high-income talented student will be more valuable to society than an extra dollar on a low-income student.

Phrased this way and framed with ongoing research, this line of reasoning calls for a serious look at the ROI of where we allocate our higher education dollars and who benefits.