Tackling the Geographical Dispersion of Low-Income High-Achievers

Caroline Hoxby and Chris Avery have drawn considerable attention to low-income high-achievers, i.e., low-income students who score in the top tenth of the SAT and ACT distributions. I was struck by the absolute numbers — there are between 25,000 and 35,000 of these students in the U.S. in any given year. And it turns out that efforts on the part of selective universities to recruit these students are undermined by geographical and cultural barriers:

Hoxby and Avery analyze data geographically and that the majority (70 percent) of high-achieving students who apply to selective colleges come from but 15 urban areas whereas under half of high-achieving, low-income students come from those urban areas. In other words, many of these students tend to live in counties that had a large number of high-achievers per 17-year-old but not a large number of achievers in absolute terms. For every high-achieving, low-income student who applies, there are 15 high-achieving, high-income students applying to selective colleges.

The authors find that there are a variety of factors as to why these students do not think to apply to selective tertiary institutions or “reach” schools: they are isolated from other high-achievers, know few others who have attended these schools (be they teachers, college counselors or older students) and their school counselors are unaccustomed to advising students about selective colleges. On the other side, they find that these colleges spend a great deal of effort finding low-income students located near their campuses, which they term “searching under the lamp-post” – looking for low-income students near them as opposed to looking where the students are.

You could say that low-income high-achievers are not part of the “right” social networks, i.e., social networks that include individuals who have some familiarity with the universe of selective colleges and who can thus help them navigate the admissions process.

Given the geographical dispersion of the low-income high-achiever population, it is not obvious how we’d go about mitigating this problem. Selective colleges and universities could redouble their efforts to achieve geographical and class diversity in their student bodies — a worthy goal — yet past experience suggests that recruited students would tend to assimilate into the social networks of their classmates, thus making them more likely to settle in the same dense, highly-productive metropolitan areas rather than returning to their home counties, where they’d be more likely to shape the lives of future low-income high-achievers who are not relatives or family friends. These students could nevertheless serve as absent role models, and their experience will inform teachers and guidance counselors, which is not trivial. So emphasizing geographical and class diversity is clearly a good idea. But this channel will work very, very slowly:

The low-hanging fruit might be working to improve counseling resources. Matt Yglesias writes:

The problem really does seem to quite literally be that most low-income kids and their families are not well-informed about the situation. They don’t know personally what kind of SAT or ACT scores are good enough to go to a selective college, they don’t know which selective colleges are appropriate for someone with theri test scores to apply to, they don’t know the strategic logic of “safety schools” and “reaches”, they don’t know about need-blind admissions policies, and they don’t have any social acquaintances who can inform this. Isn’t this what school guidance counselors are supposed to be for? Indeed it is! But they’re seemingly not doing a very good job, nor are the recruiting arms of selective schools.

With this in mind, Matt floats the idea of a more centralized approach:

A more centralized system in which everyone takes the Official College Entrance Test and then receives a letter from the government informing them of their score-based options and income-based financial aid would have some problems, but could be a boon to working class kids.

Another way of tackling the same problem might be for a consortium of selective colleges and universities and non-profits to use blended learning technologies to supplement the counseling resources available to low-income high-achievers. That is, professional counselors and student volunteers could work with low-income high-achievers remotely, starting with (say) PSAT results. One assumes that efforts like this are already being pursued.

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

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