According to a study released by Hoover fellow and Stanford professor of economics Caroline M. Hoxby and Harvard’s Christopher Avery, high-achieving, low-income students typically do not apply to the nation’s best colleges. In the study, featured in a March 16, 2013, New York Times story by David Leonhardt, Hoxby and Avery analyzed every high school student who took the SAT in a recent year. Using that data, they discovered that only 34 percent of the highest-scoring seniors in the bottom quartile of income distribution attended one of the country’s 238 most selective colleges. By comparison, 78 percent of high-achieving students from the highest-income quartile attended such a school.
The data also showed that many high-achieving, low-income students are choosing to attend four-year institutions closer to home or local community colleges, institutions that typically have fewer resources than the nation’s top colleges and, frequently, lower graduation rates. Those data are particularly striking because most elite colleges have programs to help students from low-income backgrounds enroll for little or no cost and because many of those students would likely be admitted were they to apply.
Hoxby and Avery also discovered that many of these high-achieving, lower-income students were unaware of the available financial aid and were unlikely to have had a mentor who had attended a selective university, leaving them without positive examples. This study thus brings out the need for greater advising and recruiting in low-income areas to ensure a more diverse student body, slow currently widening income inequalities, and increase levels of social mobility across the country. As the Supreme Court weighs the future of race-based affirmative action in its upcoming case involving the University of Texas this summer, the results of Hoxby and Avery’s study may increase the pressure on elite universities to step up their recruitment of lower-income students.
Hoxby is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a member of the Koret Task Force on K–12 Education. She is also the Scott and Donya Bommer Professor of Economics at Stanford University and the director of the Economics of Education Program for the National Bureau of Economic Research. Christopher Avery, a Stanford Business School alumnus, is the Roy E. Larsen Professor of Public Policy and Management at Harvard University.