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Scaling Up Efforts to Reach High-Achieving, Low-Income Students

Washington — An experiment conducted by two economists, Caroline M. Hoxby and Sarah Turner, has found that customized college information can change the enrollment patterns of high-achieving, low-income students—students who would be admissible at the most selective colleges but who tend not to apply to them.

One key takeaway from that work is that “low-income students do aspire to go to the best college that will admit them and that they’re able to afford,” Ms. Hoxby said at an event here on Wednesday put on by the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project. Such students’ enrollment choices, in other words, are the result not of their preferences but of an information gap.

From the beginning, Ms. Hoxby, a professor of economics at Stanford University, and Ms. Turner, a professor of economics at the University of Virginia, designed their Expanding College Opportunities, or ECO, project to be inexpensive and scalable.

On Wednesday the Hamilton Project released the economists’ proposal for the next stage of the ECO project, in which they plan to work with the College Board and ACT to reach more students, and also to request access to federal data that would allow them to further customize the outreach materials.

Low-income families are more responsive to information from a trusted third-party source than to information from a particular college, which can feel like a sales pitch, the researchers have found. With that in mind, Ms. Hoxby and Ms. Turner turned to the College Board and ACT.

The College Board has already signed on. At Wednesday’s event, David Coleman, its president, said the organization was sending the Expanding College Opportunities materials to some 15,000 to 20,000 students this year.

But as the economists note in their proposal, that total leaves out a large portion of students who take college-admissions tests. So the researchers are also in talks with ACT.

“We’re new to the ECO project,” Jon Whitmore, its chief executive, said at the event. The organization has invited Ms. Hoxby and Ms. Turner to meet with its officials this summer, and Mr. Whitmore has expressed a willingness to coordinate with the College Board to avoid confusing students who take both its SAT and the ACT.

The researchers also want to send information to students beyond those who are high-achieving and low-income. They have considered reaching out to students with lower grades and test scores or those whose families make a bit more money than the current threshold of about $41,000 a year. Students who are younger or are already enrolled in college could get different kinds of information, the researchers say.

The researchers would like to get access to administrative data from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid that would allow them to better identify students they want to reach and further customize the information they send. The idea is to get better aggregate data, not information on individual students, Ms. Hoxby said.

But obtaining such data won’t be easy, given concerns about student privacy and the added work it would entail for federal offices already challenged by sequestration, said Robert Gordon, a former acting deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. (Mr. Gordon is now a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution.)

The data challenges are really bureaucratic ones, Ms. Hoxby said. Besides, she said, advancing this kind of research could help the government ensure the money it puts into student aid is well spent.

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