Ensuring that America’s brightest low-income pupils receive an education on par with their abilities has long played second fiddle to closing the achievement gap and catching up our lowest-performing students. This recent paper by Caroline Hoxby gives these high-ability youngsters the concertmaster’s chair, at least for a moment. In it, she and colleague Christopher Avery (of the Harvard Kennedy School) examine the college-application behaviors and college progress of high-achieving, low-income students (those in the bottom quartile of wealth distribution). They then compare these patterns to those of wealthy high flyers, or those in the top quartile. The authors first determine ability status by students’ 2008 SAT or ACT scores, focusing on the top 10 percent of test-takers (as fewer than half of all students take a college-entrance exam, this delineates the top 4 percent of students overall). Three findings are particularly interesting: First, most high-achieving, low-income students do not apply to selective colleges or universities, despite their potential for hefty financial-aid packages. Second, those who do apply to selective institutions are admitted and graduate from these schools at rates similar to their high-income peers. And third, those in urban districts are much likelier to apply to selective schools than those in small or rural districts; in fact, 70 percent of low-income, high-ability students who apply to selective colleges come from just fifteen urban areas. The authors speculate that these larger districts are able to offer selective or magnet high schools. Smaller districts without this critical mass of high flyers can’t easily offer such programs (nor are students from these districts as likely to encounter teachers or peers who themselves attended a selective college). Hoxby and Avery then make pragmatic suggestions on how to encourage more of these kids to apply to selective colleges, including tapping geographically dispersed alumni for information dissemination and recruitment and customizing college brochures to address students’ interests and financial situations. Another option: Open selective public high schools in more areas to reach more high-flying students.

SOURCE: Caroline M. Hoxby and Christopher Avery, “The Missing One-Offs: The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low-Income Students” (National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper, December 2012).

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