Expanding College Opportunities

Intervention yields strong returns for low-income high-achievers

In this post for Educationnext, Caroline Hoxby, professor of economics at Stanford University, and Sarah Turner, professor of economics and education at the University of Virginia, explore the disconnect between high achieving, low-income students and college opportunities.

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 bypass high-achieving, low-income students, even if counselors and admissions staff conscientiously do everything that they can for these students.

A Better Deal

Figure 1

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.

The ECO-C Intervention costs just $6 per student, yet we find that it causes high-achieving, low-income students to apply and be admitted to more colleges, especially to more of those with high graduation rates and generous instructional resources. The students who receive the ECO-C Intervention respond to their expanded opportunities by enrolling in colleges that have students with stronger academic records, more instructional resources, and higher graduation rates. Their first-year grades in college are as good as those of the control students, despite the fact that the control students attend less-selective colleges, where the other students’ preparation for college is substantially inferior to their own.

The Expanding College Opportunities Project

We designed the Expanding College Opportunities Project to test several hypotheses about why most high-achieving, low-income students do not apply to and attend selective colleges. The application guidance component of ECO-C provides the kind of advice that an expert college counselor would give a high-achieving student. An expert counselor would advise such a student to apply to eight or more colleges, including a combination of “safety,” “match,” and “reach” colleges. We call this group of colleges that are within an appropriate range for a given student’s achievement “peer” colleges.

An expert counselor would also advise a student to obtain letters of reference; take college assessments on schedule; send verified assessment scores to colleges; write application essays; complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and the CSS Profile (an additional form required by many colleges that offer the most generous financial aid); and meet all other deadlines and requirements of selective colleges’ applications. Finally, an expert college counselor would advise a student to compare colleges on the basis of their curricula, instructional resources, other resources (housing, extracurricular opportunities), and outcomes (such as graduation rates).

ECO-C includes application guidance along these lines and gives students timely and customized reminders about deadlines and requirements. It also provides students with comparative information on colleges’ graduation rates and other resources tailored to where students live. The student is always presented with the graduation rates of his nearest colleges, his state’s flagship public university, other in-state selective colleges, and a small number of out-of state selective colleges.

Even with this information, some students may focus unduly on colleges’ “list prices” (the tuition and fees that an affluent student who received no aid would pay) and fail to understand that net costs for students like themselves are much lower. Many low-income students may not realize that they would generally pay less to attend colleges that are more selective and have richer instructional and other resources.

ECO-C therefore provides students with information about net costs for low- to middle-income students at an array of colleges. This information is again semicustomized in that a student always receives the list prices, instructional spending per student, and net costs of his state’s public flagship university, at least one other in-state public college, nearby colleges, a selective private college in his state, one out-of-state private liberal arts college, and one out-of-state private selective university. The net-cost information is shown for hypothetical families with incomes of $20,000, $40,000, and $60,000.

The net-cost materials are not intended to give a student precise information but, rather, to demonstrate the fact that list prices are often substantially greater than net costs, especially at selective institutions. The materials emphasize the importance of application as a student will not learn exactly how much a given college will cost him unless he applies. The net-cost materials also explain how financial aid works, emphasize how crucial it is to complete the FAFSA and CSS Profile on time, clarify how a student’s Expected Family Contribution is computed, decipher a typical financial aid offer, and illustrate the trade-offs between loans, grants, and working while in college.

Finally, some low-income students may be deterred from applying to college by application fees. Such students may fail to realize that application fee waivers are available to them, or they may balk at filling out financial aid forms that will reveal their family income to a counselor. Or counselors may be too busy to do their part of the fee waiver process. ECO-C therefore provides students with no-paperwork fee waivers that allow them to apply to 171 selective colleges.

Data and Methods

In our main experiment, we randomly assigned each of 3,000 high-achieving, low-income 2011–12 high school seniors to the ECO-C Intervention and the same number of students to the control group. To be defined as high-achieving, we required that students score in the top 10 percent of test-takers on the College Board’s SAT I or the ACT (1,300 math plus verbal on the SAT, 28 on the ACT).

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