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The nation's most elite colleges and universities have in recent years added numerous programs to help students from low-income backgrounds enroll. And at many such institutions, low-income students would not need to pay anything, or would have to make only very small contributions to the annual tab. So why, at some of these institutions, is one more likely to find a student with a second home than one with a Pell Grant?

A new study finds that a majority of students with low incomes but high academic ability never apply to a single competitive college. Further, the study finds that many colleges are searching for these students at a very small number of high schools -- and in the process are missing lots of other talent. The study -- by Caroline M. Hoxby, a professor of economics at Stanford University, and Christopher Avery, a professor of public policy at Harvard University -- was released Monday by the National Bureau of Economic Research. (An abstract is available here.)

Hoxby and Avery used data from the College Board and ACT to identify the population of low-income, high-achieving college seniors. They looked at students whose SAT or ACT scores were in the top decile of all test-takers. (And since only a minority of high school students take the SAT or ACT, that means the top 4 percent, as measured by tests, of the high school population).

Students were included only if they had an A- or higher average in high school courses (although almost all of the students in this group had such an average). For wealth level, the study examined those with family incomes in the bottom quartile, or those with incomes up to $41,472. Hoxby and Avery note that students with these academic qualities are highly sought-after, and that most selective colleges would generally admit those who apply with those levels of academic achievement and economic disadvantage.

After creating their focus pool and comparison pools of students who are from affluent families but have similar academic credentials, the scholars used College Board and ACT data to track where the students reported their SAT or ACT scores. For affluent families, they found the expected pattern: students would apply to clusters of colleges where average test scores/grades of admitted applicants were a good match, plus a few "stretch" institutions and a few "safety" choices. That pattern is consistent with the kind of advice high school students receive from their counselors.

A minority of low-income, academically talented students follow the same pattern, and these students exhibit what the scholars call "achievement typical" behavior. But most exhibit "income typical" behavior when it comes to applying for colleges, and they apply to the sorts of institutions where those of similar income (but far less demonstrated academic ability) tend to enroll.

Indeed, 53 percent of low-income, highly talented students do not apply to a single selective college that doesn't have significantly lower average grades and test scores for admitted applicants than for these students -- and these students do apply to at least one college that is not selective at all. Many of these students apply to a single nonselective college, or to a single nonselective college and one moderately selective college. And more than half of these students do not have a single application sent to what might be considered a "reach" college for them. In other words, students who could probably gain admission to highly selective colleges (and receive financial aid from them) are not even trying to get in.

Why aren't these students applying? The authors write that -- from their data on the students' high schools -- most of these students are unlikely to have met a teacher, counselor or older student who ever attended a selective college.

But what about the minority of low-income, high-achieving students who do apply? The study found that these students are "highly concentrated" in a very small number of high schools, frequently those requiring certain test scores or grades to be admitted. Many of these selective high schools do have mentors who know about selective colleges, after-school tutoring programs and more. And the students from these high schools are as likely to be admitted to and to succeed at highly selective colleges as are their wealthier counterparts.

But Hoxby and Avery express fear that this pattern reflects a tendency by colleges to recruit only at these 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.

Further, competitive colleges are spending so much time recruiting at these relatively few high schools that they may be "tapped out," Hoxby and Avery write. "Their students are already so recruited by selective colleges that further recruitment may merely shift students among similar, selective colleges, not cause students to change their college-going behavior in more fundamental ways."

In their conclusion, Hoxby and Avery say that their work shows there are more low-income students of high academic talent out there. Broadening recruiting would cost more in time and money than the current system, they write. But colleges today appear to be "searching under the lamp post" for the small number of students that are visible, rather than searching "where the students are."

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