The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

Tackling the Geographical Dispersion of Low-Income High-Achievers, Part II: Actually Tackling the Problem


Having drawn attention to fact that low-income high-achievers tend not to attend selective colleges and universities with co-author Chris Avery, the impressively prolific Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby has a new paper (“Expanding College Opportunities for High-Achieving, Low Income Students“), co-authored by Sarah Turner, on strategies for addressing this mismatch, which arises despite the fact that selective schools typically cost these students less than non-selective alternatives. Late last month, I lazily suggested that that various stakeholders might build some kind of remote counseling platform to connect low-income high-achievers with mentors. But Hoxby and Turner seem to have a fully-cooked and effective intervention that’s ready to go, rather ready for an ongoing process of further testing, refinement, and scaling up.

The basic problem, per Hoxby and Avery, is that while some low-income high-achiever have the benefit of access to experienced college counselors and attend high schools that educate large numbers of others high-achievers, and thus serve as “feeder schools” for elite colleges and universities, most attend high schools where high achievement is an anomaly, and so their college counselors rarely have the requisite relationships and skill sets to successfully guide them toward selective colleges and universities. Selective colleges and universities only rarely cultivate relationships with underperforming high schools, particularly when these high schools are distant, geographically as well as socially, from the selective institution in question. As a result, low-income high-achievers who don’t attend the right schools or belong to the right networks have to fend for themselves.

Hoxby and Turner evaluate a series of low-cost ($6 per student) interventions designed to (in a sense) substitute for expert college guidance counseling, including no-paperwork application fee waivers and customized information mailed directly to students. Drawing on lessons from a Pilot cohort and the advice of admissions officers and college mentors, they discovered that the families of low-income high-achievers much preferred to receive information via snail mail and that they preferred that the information not resemble recruitment brochures, in part because many parents were fearful of being duped by unscrupulous, fly-by-night operations. That this fear is so pervasive among parents is telling in itself. Indeed, Hoxby and Turner report that many for-profits initially provide free advising materials only to charge high fees once families take the bait, and these advising materials are often designed to channel students towards expensive, low-quality for-profit schools. They also found that fee waivers led students and parents to believe that the information provided was meant to be genuinely helpful, thus helping to overcome skepticism.

The results of the experiment were encouraging. The intervention did lead more low-income high-achievers to apply, and to be admitted, to selective colleges and universities when compared to students in the control group. Better still, preliminary results suggest that the low-income high-achievers admitted to selective colleges and universities are faring as well as their similarly high-achieving classmates.

But is it worth it? That is, do low-income high-achievers get enough out of attending more selective colleges and universities to merit the incremental cost? The authors cite Mark Hoekstra’s paper on the earnings impact of attending a selective flagship state university over a less-selective public higher education institution on students admitted to both kinds of school to show that graduates of more selective schools earn 18 to 28 percent than graduates of less-selective schools each year, and that this earnings advantage can persist for 40 or more years. According to Hoxby and Taylor, for every $10 spent on the ECO-C intervention, students enroll in colleges where the median peer has scores that are 65 points higher. These implies, under conservatives assumptions, that $10 buys a lifetime earnings increase of $222,990 to $346,874 (at a real earnings growth rate of 2.5 percent a year) or $365,028 to $567,821 (at a real earnings growth rate of 5 percent a year). This is before accounting for the social costs and social benefits, which might include, for example, helping future high-achieving students from underperforming schools by providing them with role models.


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