Expert Commentary

The missing “one-offs”: The hidden supply of high-achieving, low-income students

2012 study from Stanford and Harvard Universities showing that the majority of low-income, high-achieving students do not apply to selective schools.

Many of the most selective colleges in the United States have policies that now make tuition free or very inexpensive for low-income students. This includes Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford. Low-income students who achieve high academic standards are highly desirable applicants for these institutions. But it turns out that most of these students — who typically benefit the most from selective schools — do not end up applying to colleges that would be a proper “match” with their academic talents.

A December 2012 study for the Brookings Institution and the National Bureau of Economic Research, “The Missing ‘One-Offs’: The Hidden Supply of High Achieving, Low Income Students,” quantifies this disjunction between selective colleges and the low-income high achievers they might enroll. The authors, based at Stanford University and the Harvard Kennedy School, make a distinction between low-income, high-achieving students who apply to selective institutions (“achievement-typical”) and those who do not (“income-typical” behavior). They define “high achieving” students as those who score in the top 10% on their college aptitude test (SAT or ACT). “Low-income” is defined as any high school senior whose estimated family income is at or below $41,472, or the bottom 25% of the 2008 family income distribution. “High income” is defined as a student whose family income is above $120,776, or in the top 25% of the 2008 family income distribution. The scholars draw on data from the Census Bureau, the College Board and the National Student Clearinghouse, among other organizations.

The study’s findings include:

  • Most high-achieving, low-income students do not apply to any selective universities. These are students whose demonstrated college-testing aptitude is almost identical to that of high-achieving students from wealthy families. About two-thirds of this low-income, high-achieving group does not end up attending one of the nation’s more than 200 selective colleges.
  • Only 8% of “low-income, high-achieving students apply in a manner that is somewhat  close to what is recommended and to what their high-income counterparts do: they apply to at least one match college, at least one safety college with median scores not more than 15 percentiles lower than their own, and apply to no non-selective colleges.”
  • Thirty-nine percent of “low-income, high-achieving student use application strategies that an expert would probably regard as odd. It is not unusual, for instance, to see students who apply to only a local non-selective college and one extremely selective and well-known college — Harvard, for instance.”
  • “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.”
  • The study’s authors also assert that this “phenomenon occurs because many colleges are ‘searching under the lamp-post.’ That is, many colleges look for low-income students where the college is instead of looking for low-income students where the students are.”
  • Seventy percent of the achievement-typical students “come from just fifteen urban areas: San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, San Diego, Dallas, Houston, Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Portland, Boston, Providence, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Only 21% of achievement-typical students live in a non-urban area (not necessarily rural, but a town rather than an urban area suburb).”
  • Among the group of low-income higher achievers, 15.4% are “underrepresented minorities,” and 15.2% are Asian.
  • The data show that a “student’s being an under-represented 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.”

The authors conclude that the students in question are “insufficiently geographically concentrated to be reached, cost-effectively, by popular methods of informing students about their college opportunities: visits by admissions staff to high schools, campus visits by students, after school college access programs, contact with teachers who attended selective colleges, and the like.”

Tags: higher education, youth