Why Academically Talented, Low-Income Students Don’t Apply to Selective Schools

A new study has determined that low-income students with top test scores and grades do not generally apply to the most selective colleges and universities, raising troubling questions about rising inequality and the potentially diminished role of higher education as a catalyst for social and economic mobility. 

According to “The Missing One-Offs: The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low-Income Students,” by Caroline M. Hoxby and Christopher Avery, only 34 percent of high-achieving high school seniors in the bottom fourth of income distribution attended any one of the country’s 238 most selective colleges. The findings contradict elite public and private colleges’ stated desire to achieve socioeconomic diversity in their student bodies.

The reasons for this trend range from a dearth of family, friends, mentors, and counselors who have also attended elite institutions, concerns about cultural mismatch, and, perhaps most significantly, a lack of awareness of available financial aid options (which may often make a degree at a top private college less expensive for low-income students than one at a local state college).

The findings in Hoxby and Avery’s study align with those of Ipsos Public Affairs’ in “How America Pays for College”, an annual study of parents’ and students’ college financing habits conducted for Sallie Mae. For example, in 2012, 50% of lower-income students (those with an annual household income of less than $35,000) eliminated colleges based on cost before even researching them, while 47% of lower-income students eliminated them before applying.

At the same time, a vast majority (83%) of lower-income students and their parents believed that college was an investment in the future, with a solid majority (59%) saying that they would be willing to stretch themselves financially for a college education. Interestingly, a degree from a top private college or university could ultimately be both a greater investment in the future and a less expensive option than a degree from a state or local institution, due to the former’s more generous financial aid policies.

These seemingly contradictory patterns leave many unanswered questions for further study among researchers and policymakers in higher education.