New tools help smart low-income kids realize great college opportunities, Stanford researcher says

March 29, 2013

A new study finds that when low-income, high-achieving students get targeted information about their full range of college-going opportunities, they apply to selective colleges in larger numbers, attend and graduate.

The smartest low-income teens rarely enroll in the country's top colleges and the reason is more obvious than you'd think: They don't apply.

Stanford economics Professor Caroline Hoxby says cost isn't the reason – high-achieving, low-income students actually pay less to attend a very selective college than the nonselective ones they usually attend.

It also isn't the fees associated with applying. Low-income students are eligible for application fee waivers if they file the right paperwork.

And it isn't that colleges are ignoring them – the country's most selective colleges try to recruit low-income students by visiting hundreds of high schools, inviting students to campus and working with numerous college mentoring organizations.

What's more, in a recent study Hoxby and Professor Christopher Avery of Harvard demonstrate that high-achieving, low-income students who do apply to very selective colleges are admitted and graduate at the same rates as their high-income peers with similar achievement.

So what is the reason these students don't apply? Experts speculate that students are either poorly informed about their college choices or just did not want to attend selective colleges. For example, students might believe top colleges cost much more when they really cost less. Stanford's financial aid program, for example, covers tuition for undergraduates from households with incomes of $100,000 or less. Those with incomes below $60,000 pay no tuition, room or board.

Or perhaps low-income, high-achieving students want to attend the same postsecondary institutions that other students from their high schools often pick – even if these institutions have low graduation rates and slender instructional resources.

It's one thing if students don't apply because they know about their college-going opportunities and don't want to attend, Hoxby said. It's quite another if they are under-informed.

"If a child has managed, despite coming from a low-income family, to become extremely well prepared for college, it is a huge waste if she fails to get a great college education simply because she doesn't know that she could," Hoxby said.

It's a waste not just for the student but for the university she could attend as well. If a university can enroll a student who is just as prepared but brings more socio-economic diversity to its student body, a wider array of ideas may flourish in its classrooms.