Academic journal article Education Next

Expanding College Opportunities: Intervention Yields Strong Returns for Low-Income High-Achievers

Academic journal article Education Next

Expanding College Opportunities: Intervention Yields Strong Returns for Low-Income High-Achievers

Article excerpt

Ask any high school student in a well-heeled suburban community around the United States the best strategy for applying to college, and chances are you'll hear something like this: apply to several schools, most with students whose grades and test scores are similar to your own. But be sure to include one or two "safeties" at which admission is all but guaranteed and a couple of "reaches." And data on the colleges to which high-achieving, high-income students apply and that they attend suggest that they are paying attention.

The situation for low-income students appears to be quite different. The vast majority of even very high achieving students from low-income families do not apply to a single selective college or university. In other words, having worked hard in high school to prepare themselves well for college, they do not even apply to the colleges whose curriculum is most geared toward students with their level of preparation.

This is particularly puzzling because there are good reasons why many of these students should attend more-selective colleges. First, they are likely to succeed if they do. The high-achieving, low-income students who do apply are admitted, enroll, progress, and graduate at the same rates as high-income students with equivalent test scores and grades. Second, taking into account financial aid, low-income students generally face lower net costs at selective institutions than at the far less-selective institutions with fewer resources that most of them attend (see Figure 1).

One potential explanation for this pattern of behavior is that high-achieving, low-income students do not have access to good information about college quality and costs. These students are quite dispersed throughout the country and are often the only high-achieving student or one of just a few such students in their school. Thus, their high school counselor is unlikely to have much expertise regarding selective colleges and likely to be focused on other issues. Nor are recruiting visits to their high school or community likely to be cost-effective for college admissions staff. Moreover, it is often the case that neither parents nor other trusted adults are able to fill the deficit in information about college quality and costs for high-achieving low-income students. In short, traditional information channels may bypasss, low-income students, even if counselors and admissions staff conscientiously do everything that they can for these students.

Many low-income students may therefore be poorly informed about their college opportunities or deterred by apparently small barriers such as the paperwork required to request a waiver for application fees. Although a great deal of relevant information is available on the Internet, it is not easy for an inexperienced student to distinguish reliable sources of information on college admission standards, curricula, and net costs from the numerous unreliable (sometimes egregiously misleading) sources that are also online. Furthermore, many available information sources assume that low-income students are low-achieving and offer guidance that reflects this assumption. Because high-achieving, low-income students are atypical, these materials, aimed at students who are at the margin of attending any college, will provide little assistance.

For this study, we designed an experiment to test whether some high-achieving, low-income students would change their behavior if they knew more about colleges and, more importantly, whether we can construct a cost-effective way to help such students realize their full array of college opportunities. We do so by randomly assigning interventions that provide different types of information to roughly 18,000 students, including 3,000 students who serve as controls. The most comprehensive form of the intervention, which we call the Expanding College Opportunities-Comprehensive (ECO-C) Intervention, combined application guidance, semicustomized information about the net cost of attending different colleges, and no-paperwork application fee waivers. …

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