Admissions & Student Aid

Richer Data on College Applicants Help the Prospects of Low-Income Students

November 07, 2015

Systematically providing selective colleges with detailed information about applicants’ high-school backgrounds could significantly raise the admission rates of low-income students, a new study concludes.

The authors of the study based it on an unusual experiment in which more than 300 admission officers at selective institutions passed judgment on hypothetical applicants from various socioeconomic backgrounds. Officers who had been provided with detailed information about applicants’ high schools were about 13 percentage points more likely to recommend the admission of a student of low socioeconomic status than were officers who had been given more basic information conveying a humble background.

Selective colleges' failure to enroll more low-income students 'may be partially due to a lack of high-quality information.'
How admission officers responded to applicants remained consistent regardless of the officers’ own background, their offices’ practices, or the selectivity of their institution, according to a paper by the researchers, Michael Bastedo, director of the University of Michigan’s Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education, and Nicholas A. Bowman, director of the University of Iowa’s Center for Research on Undergraduate Education.

Admission officers "showed a willingness to reward applicants for overcoming obstacles rather than penalizing applicants for attending an insufficiently rigorous high school," says the paper, which was presented on Saturday in Denver at the annual conference of the Association for the Study of Higher Education.

The paper says the experiment’s outcome suggests that selective colleges’ failure to enroll more low-income students "may be partially due to a lack of high-quality information rather than an unwillingness to consider class-based disparities or an overreliance on any litmus test for admission."

Pointing the Way

Lindsay C. Page, an assistant professor of research and methodology at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Education who reviewed the paper, cautioned that Mr. Bastedo and Mr. Bowman had focused on a simulated experience for admission officers, not real-life decisions. She asked, "If they really implemented this in the context of high-stakes admissions, would we see something different?"

Others, however, praised the study as offering a way to improve access to selective colleges.

Don Hossler, a senior scholar at the University of Southern California’s Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice, said, "We tend to be so focused on getting information to students that we have not focused enough on ‘Do the institutions making the decisions have sufficient information?’"

The paper was praised as "important and highly relevant" by David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, which helped recruit the study’s participants. In an email, he said the study "quantifies a concept that many admission officers and observers know intuitively — that more information generally allows admission officers to make more nuanced and, in our view, fair evaluations of an applicant’s chances for success at their institution."

Tackling Bias

Mr. Bastedo and Mr. Bowman based their study on the hypothesis that admission officers’ decisions are tainted by "correspondence bias," or the human tendency to attribute someone’s behavior to their personality rather than to their circumstances. The researchers sought to see if giving admission officers more information would mitigate such bias.

For their experiment, they recruited 311 admission officers from 174 institutions that Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges had listed in one of its top three tiers in terms of selectivity.

The researchers instructed the admission officers to review three simulated admission files using the same standards and criteria normally applied at their institution. The hypothetical applicants’ academic qualifications and extracurricular activities had been tailored to the selectivity of the colleges where the admission officers worked.

'Do the institutions making the decisions have sufficient information?'
All three of the fictitious applicants sought admission to engineering programs, and all were described as white men. One had characteristics of a low-income background. About half of the admission officers received only limited information about the socioeconomic background of the applicants, namely their parents’ level of education and their high schools’ graduation rates. The other half received additional information about applicants’ high schools, including college-enrollment rates, average standardized-test scores, Advanced Placement offerings, and the percentage of students qualifying for lunch subsidies.

The researchers did not specifically instruct the admission officers on how to use such information.

The admission officers with less data proved less likely to recommend the admission of the lower-income student even though they could ascertain that the student came from relative disadvantage based on the information at hand.

What Next?

The study highlights the challenges admission officers face in trying to gather information about the backgrounds of lower-income students. Often, the paper says, they have meager information on applicants’ high schools. And finding time to research high schools online was a challenge for the study’s participants, who read 137 files per week, on average, during busy times of the admission cycle.

Mr. Hossler of the University of Southern California said private schools and public high schools in wealthy suburbs can have the resources to provide colleges with the sort of detailed information offered in the experiment, but the prospect that schools in low-income communities will do so "is very unlikely."

Mr. Bastedo and Mr. Bowman recommended that organizations such as the College Board, ACT, and the Common Application take it upon themselves to gather and relay such student data.

Donald E. Heller, dean of Michigan State University’s College of Education, said in an email that such an effort "would be relatively low cost to implement and yet could have a large impact" on low-income students’ access to selective colleges.

Ms. Page of the University of Pittsburgh argued, however, that such efforts would do little to resolve the "much larger issue" that is the failure of many students from low-income backgrounds to consider selective colleges. "There are plenty of students that admissions officers should, ideally be reviewing," she said, "and those students are not even applying."

Peter Schmidt writes about affirmative action, academic labor, and issues related to academic freedom. Contact him at peter.schmidt@chronicle.com.