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Top-Performing Low-Income Students and College Choice

Miami — Each cohort of high-school students includes some 35,000 who are high-achieving and low-income—their test scores are in the top 10 percent and their income is in the bottom quarter. But new research shows that many of them are not applying to the colleges where they would probably have the best outcomes.

Caroline M. Hoxby, a professor of economics at Stanford University, presented some of her findings about how those students choose colleges at a session of the College Board Forum here on Friday. She also shared suggestions about what colleges might do to help.

While highly qualified low-income students should have many strong college options, 82 percent of them did not apply to any “good fit” colleges, defined as ones in which students like them experience good outcomes, Ms. Hoxby said. Most of those students’ “undermatching,” or enrolling in less-selective colleges than they are qualified to attend, happened at the application stage, she found. In other words, if the students applied to good-fit colleges, they were likely to be admitted and to attend.

The students who undermatch trip up in specific parts of the college search, Ms. Hoxby said. They tend not to use application-fee waivers, they apply to too few colleges, they don’t understand how financial-aid will lower the amount they will pay, and they rely on local word of mouth instead of other sources to pick which colleges to consider.

All of those factors fit together, Ms. Hoxby said. “If you only apply to one college, you aren’t going to be very risk taking in college applications,” she said.

So who are the highly qualified low-income students who are not applying to good-fit colleges, or to any at all? They tend not to live in large urban areas, Ms. Hoxby said. They usually live in a smaller school district, attend a regular high school rather than a specialized one, and have few similarly high-achieving classmates.

Ms. Hoxby described the primary results from a study, to be released next month, that examines what interventions change the college-going behavior of those “missing” high-achieving low-income students. Her research looked at the effectiveness of providing students with basic college-application strategies, giving them advice on financial aid and net prices, and waiving application fees.

The study found that a combination of the interventions was the most effective, though each alone also made a difference on measures like whether students applied to eight or more colleges. And, she said, the interventions were cheap enough to be scaled up: only about $10 per student.

The research, Ms. Hoxby said, had some takeaways for college recruitment.

Colleges, of course, are interested in enrolling top-performing low-income students. But the places they seek out such students—high schools with a cluster of them, access programs that require a critical mass, or the area surrounding a selective college—are “tapped out,” Ms. Hoxby said. High-achieving low-income students in those environments will be attending a college, perhaps a good-fit institution, anyhow. College representatives who visit are, at most, changing which institutions the students consider.

One thing colleges could do to help find more of the “missing” students is to invite isolated high-achieving low-income students from the surrounding area to join them for college visits at the high schools that do have clusters of such students, Ms. Hoxby said.

Ms. Hoxby also found that the students and their families were suspicious of online sources of college information, and ended up receiving most of the interventions through the mail. They were also wary of information provided by the colleges themselves, which they perceived as self-serving, she said.

“Hardly any college brochure says: ‘You would not be a good fit for this college,’” she noted.

But if the students are directed to other sources that can help them put information from colleges in context, like the College Board’s Big Future Web site or the Education Department’s College Navigator, she said, they are more likely to dig into that stack of admissions brochures.

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