The Missing High-Achievers

Earlier this week, a friend pointed me to a new paper by Caroline Hoxby and Chris Avery, the abstract of which reads as follows:

We show that the vast majority of very high-achieving students who are low-income do not apply to any selective college or university. 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. Moreover, high-achieving, low-income students who do apply to selective institutions are admitted and graduate at high rates. We demonstrate that these low-income students’ application behavior differs greatly from that of their high-income counterparts who have similar achievement. The latter group generally follows the advice to apply to a few “par” colleges, a few “reach” colleges, and a couple of “safety” schools. We separate the low-income, high-achieving students into those whose application behavior is similar to that of their high-income counterparts (“achievement-typical” behavior) and those whose apply to no selective institutions (“income-typical” behavior). We show that income-typical students do not come from families or neighborhoods that are more disadvantaged than those of achievement-typical students. However, in contrast to the achievement-typical students, the income-typical students come from districts too small to support selective public high schools, are not in a critical mass of fellow high achievers, and are unlikely to encounter a teacher or schoolmate from an older cohort who attended a selective college. We demonstrate that widely-used policies–college admissions staff recruiting, college campus visits, college access programs–are likely to be ineffective with income-typical students, and we suggest policies that will be effective must depend less on geographic concentration of high achievers. [Emphasis added]

The authors suggest that racial preferences are not likely to help increase the representation of high-achieving, low-income students in elite colleges and universities:

A key take-away from Figure 5 is a student’s being an underrpresented minority is not a good proxy for his being low-income. Thus, if a college wants its student body to exhibit income diversity commensurate with the income diversity among high achievers, it cannot possibly attain this goal simply by recruiting students who are underrepresented minorities.  If admissions staff do most of their outreach to low-income students by visiting schools that are largely Hispanic and black, the staff should realize that this strategy is likely to lead to a student body that is not income-diverse.

Roughly 70 percent of the high-achieving, low-income student population Hoxby and Avery identify is non-Hispanic white while another 15 percent is of Asian origin. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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