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Stories abound this year about how top colleges are overwhelmed with applications and have no problem filling their classes. For elite public and private institutions, there is truth in those statements. Large shares of their applicants don't need to be recruited.

But for many colleges, reaching out to students in person at high school events is a key part of the recruitment process. And even for the elites, this is an important part of outreach and regularly results in applications from those who might not have otherwise applied. But where do the college go to recruit?

A new study being presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association suggests that these visits favor those who attend high schools where family income is high. And these high schools are likely to be whiter than the population as a whole.

Two of the researchers -- Ozan Jaquette, an assistant professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Karina Salazar, a doctoral candidate at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona -- published a summary of their findings in The New York Times.

Jaquette has done other research that draws attention to whether college admissions practices favor wealthy white applicants. A 2013 study, for example, found that increases in the proportion of out-of-state students at public research universities lead to declines in the enrollment of minority and low-income students.

Such findings tend to frustrate public higher education admissions leaders, some of whom say that they have no choice -- in an era of eroding state support -- to seek students who can afford to pay, and that such students effectively subsidize those who lack the means to pay.

While some information about the research is available in the Times op-ed, much more is online at the website of the Off-Campus Recruiting Research Project. Much of the research was done by "scraping" information from about 150 college and university websites about their high school visits, and then collecting demographic data about the high schools or the neighborhoods that they serve (for public high schools).

Here are some of the findings of the research:

  • Colleges and universities appear to prioritize wealthy high schools, with many visiting high schools where average family income in the neighborhood served is in excess of $100,000, and skipping nearby high schools where average family income is around $60,000 to $70,000.
  • Generally visits to out-of-state high schools by public universities are to those that serve neighborhoods with higher average family income than those of the high schools visited in the state.
  • The high schools visited almost always have a majority of white students, sometimes with very high percentages of white students. Nearby high schools that are skipped tend to have much smaller shares of white students, and typically are high schools where white students are in the minority.
  • Many colleges appear to visit a disproportionate number of private high schools.

The version of the research being presented at AERA acknowledges limitations in the approach used.

"First, due to focusing on only one aspect of recruiting, off-campus visits, the study may not capture other efforts universities are making in recruiting low-income or students of color," the paper says. "These students may be targeted by other efforts such as mailings and email. Secondly, our analyses do not demonstrate the effect of off-campus recruiting on student destinations."

At the same time, the paper says that in-person visits are an important part of recruitment and may be particularly important for disadvantaged students.

The new study is not the first analysis to question whether colleges are recruiting in ways that may bypass a lot of low-income talent.

A 2012 study by Caroline M. Hoxby and Christopher Avery found a tendency by colleges to recruit only at high schools where they will find a critical mass of talented low-income students and not the many others where academic achievement may be more rare. The high schools having success at placing students in competitive colleges are in large metropolitan areas (generally from 15 cities) and their students are "far from representative" of the academic talent among low-income students, the authors write.

So it's not that colleges don't recruit at low-income high schools, but they favor the magnet over the typical high school -- even though there are many students with ability who do not attend magnet high schools.

Journalistic investigations have found similar inequities.

A 2013 project by the Los Angeles Times explored the issue by looking at high schools in the Los Angeles area and counting the number of college visits. At the Webb Schools, an elite private school, a greater number of colleges (113) visited in the year studied than the total number of 12th graders (106).

By comparison, at Jefferson High School, in a low-income part of Los Angeles, only eight recruiters came for a graduating class of 280. Those recruiting at such high schools were generally local, noncompetitive public institutions.

Jaquette, via email, said there is a contradiction between colleges' statements that they are doing everything possible to recruit low-income, disadvantaged students and the findings of the new study.

"Scholarship on organizational behavior -- on all types of organizations -- finds that organizations publicly adopt goals demanded by the external environment," he said. "But these public statements are poor indicators of actual organizational priorities. How they spend real resources is a better indicator."

Whatever colleges say, he said, "our data on recruiting suggest that many colleges and universities systematically focus off-campus recruiting visits on affluent, white communities. These data suggest that colleges aren't doing everything they can to recruit diverse students."

Jaquette acknowledged that many college admissions officers note that wealthier high schools not only produce students with greater tuition-paying ability, but also those with higher test scores and other measures of ability to succeed in college.

But he added that colleges are missing out on talented students by any measure -- and that narrow measures of talent add to the problem.

"The question is whether they are ignoring poor communities and communities of color that have large numbers of high-achieving students," he said. "Our limited data on high school-level academic achievement (number that pass state assessments) suggests they are. But this is a crude measure. We need stronger measures of academic achievement before we can make stronger claims."

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