To the list of the many ways our country has devised for the poor to stay poor, add this one: Don't apply to colleges that give you the best leg up.
A new study suggests that bright kids in low-income families are not being groomed, advised, counseled or in any other way prepared to compete with the kids of the wealthy to get into elite colleges.
Education researchers Caroline M. Hoxby of Stanford University and Christopher Avery of Harvard University report that low-income, high-achieving students — described as those whose SAT scores are in the top 10 percent and come from families with income levels at or below $41,472 — often don't apply to selective colleges. Why: They aren't encouraged to.
The study, which is to be published in the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, found that these students were 6 percent black, 8 percent Latino, 15 percent Asian-American and 69 percent white.
The top colleges tend to have more generous financial aid packages than less-selective colleges, and yet the children of low-and middle-income families aren't knocking on their doors.
"The vast majority of very high-achieving students who are low-income do not apply to any selective college or university," the study's authors wrote. "This is despite the fact that selective institutions would often cost them less, owing to generous financial aid, than the resource-poor two-year and non-selective four-year institutions to which they actually apply."
The authors say that such students who do apply to selective colleges and universities are admitted and graduate at high rates.
The study found that only 34 percent of high school seniors who excel in the classroom but who are in the lowest quarter of income distribution attend one of the country's 238 most selective colleges.
That figure compares to 78 percent for similar students from families in the highest quarter of income distribution.
The authors found that many of the top low-income students don't know about the amount of financial aid available at the top colleges, and wind up going to community colleges or four-year institutions closer to their homes.
They frequently don't have role models who have attended elite colleges. They don't think they can hack the coursework or afford the ancillary expenses to attend such schools.
The term "achievement typical" describes students like these who apply to schools in a manner similar to their high-income counterparts. Those who don't are called "income typical."
The income-typical students are fairly isolated from other high achievers, both in terms of geography and in the high schools they attend, the authors said.
That means they lose out on visits from elite college admissions staffs and don't have access to mentoring programs that might help them achieve greater recognition of those opportunities.
Achievement-typical students are highly concentrated in the country's 15 largest metropolitan areas, where academic stimulus resources tend to be available. They frequently attend academic-intensive high schools.
While they get recruited by selective colleges, they do not represent the larger population of high-achieving low-income students.
Income-typical students often wind up at colleges with fewer resources and lower graduation rates than the selective colleges. Even if students graduate from the less-selective schools, elite job-recruiters often overlook them.
The study is getting a lot of attention in the higher-ed community. It found graduation rates for lower-income, high-achievement students are 89 percent at selective colleges and just 50 percent from non-selective colleges.
Elite schools like to boast about their outreach efforts, but they could be doing better. So could high-school guidance counselors. A degree from a top college is the best way up the social and economic ladder.
Top schools say they want economic diversity among their students. To get it, they must reach beyond the large metropolitan areas to small cities and towns in rural America.
Elite schools with a genuine commitment shouldn't find that hard. Most have graduates across the country; turn them into recruiters.
High school counselors should be setting the bar higher for their students. So should parents. If a kid has the smarts for, say, Harvard, counselors and parents should encourage him or her to look beyond Northwest Southern State University. The financial aid money is there and the future is lot better for a Harvard grad.
This study marks the first time this data has been extensively researched. Educators who ignore it aren't doing their jobs, either for their schools or for young people who have earned their help.
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