Most kids who are high academic achievers but come from low-income families aren’t applying to schools like Harvard or Columbia University, or even the University of Florida.
Not because they wouldn’t do well there or because the financial support doesn’t exist for them. It’s because the schools aren’t recruiting them, according to two recently published studies.
The papers, co-authored by Caroline Hoxby, a Stanford economist, showed that as elite universities try to attract more low-income students by offering financial support to make them competitive or even cheaper than local colleges, they routinely target the same schools in densely populated areas.
But according to this research, a mere $6 investment in an informational packet geared toward low-income students increased the probability that they apply to a college equal to their educational abilities by 19 percent for public universities, 17 percent for private universities and 15 percent for liberal arts schools.
The studies were published in March and contained data supplied by the College Board for the graduating class of 2008.
Although the information that the investigators assembled is available through a variety of sources, it isn't being packaged in a way that is helpful for students, some say.
“When they think about Latinos, they say 'well we’ll just translate what we have and that will be good enough'," said Deborah Santiago, co-founder of Excelencia in Education, a group that promotes higher education among Latinos. "But they still have to find a way to get to them.”
That information is often dispensed to the same schools year after year, schools that tend to be located in areas where they get a large pool of students, such as ones in close proximity to a university or an urban magnet school with high densities of low-income students. But in taking that approach, there are large untapped populations in suburban and rural areas that are not made aware of the opportunities they have, the studies said.
In 2008 only 34 percent of these students, who made up the top 4 percent of high school students, went to a selective college, according to the research.
That year, Hispanics made up 7.6 percent of what the academics termed low-income high achievers, as determined by ACT and SAT test scores and GPA. They have historically not applied in high numbers to some of the nation’s best universities, opting instead for colleges closer to their homes.
To see if they could reverse the trend, the authors sent out brochures that cost $6 a student. The outreach included making up for counselors who may not be well versed in applying to selective colleges by pointing out deadlines, graduation rates and explaining how to figure out what curriculum is offered. It also tried to address cost issues by providing a net cost analysis of the financial aid available at selective colleges.
In the end, the number of low-income, high performing students who do not live in urban areas and are not routinely exposed to college recruiters wound up applying to more selective schools than they would have without the intervention.
But just because a solution seems so simple, it doesn’t mean that colleges will change their recruitment procedures.
“At end of the day,” Santiago said. “An institution still has to find ways to help that student afford an education.”
Soni Sangha is a freelance writer based in New York City.