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  News & Views

Large Numbers of Highly Qualified, Low-Income Students Are Not Applying to Harvard and Other Highly Selective Schools

An impressive new study finds that there is no shortage of academically strong students from low-income families. As a result, colleges and universities setting plans to enroll more low-income applicants need not relax admissions policies, which may result in lower mean SAT scores and other qualifications of entering students.

Fears are unwarranted that efforts to increase the number of low-income students will produce a lowering of their U.S. News & World Report rankings. Rather than lowering their academic standards, the nation's selective colleges and universities need to do a better job at identifying high-achieving, low-income students and convincing them to apply.

A solid and carefully researched new study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research establishes that there are a sizable number of low-income students in the United States with high academic qualifications who are not applying to the nation's highest-ranked colleges and universities. The researchers, including Harvard University economist Caroline Hoxby, examined data from The College Board for all students who had grade point averages and standardized test scores that were high enough for Harvard's academic standards. In this pool of potential Harvard students, they found thousands of low-income students who did not consider applying to Harvard.

The data showed that students from 10,555 different high schools had qualifications that met Harvard's standards. But of these schools, students from only 5,368 high schools actually applied to Harvard. Thus, there were more than 5,000 high schools that graduated students with Harvard qualifications that did not have a single student who applied for admission to the university. Some of these high schools undoubtedly had two or more students who had qualifications that met Harvard's standards.

Many of these 5,000 high schools with highly qualified students have a limited history of sending graduates to Harvard, and most have large numbers of economically disadvantaged students.

Schools that have had no or only a limited history of success with their students applying to Harvard may have counselors who steer students to less selective institutions where they believe the students have a better chance of being admitted. Many counselors at these schools, who concentrate on finding places for students at state institutions or local community colleges, may not be aware of the enhanced financial aid opportunities at many of the nation's elite private colleges and universities and therefore do not even consider recommending these institutions to high-achieving, low-income high school seniors.

The data in this National Bureau of Economic Research paper demonstrates that there is a large untapped pool of potential low-income students with superior grade point averages and high scores on standardized tests for college admission. The pool of low-income students is far larger than many admissions officers believe exists.

No Need to Worry About Lower Rankings

The new research assumes special importance at a time when many college administrators are advancing policies in which they are planning on a greater number of low-income students to the end of increasing the economic diversity of students on their campuses. But a deliberate policy of admitting greater numbers of low-income students presents a dilemma for most admissions officers. In large part, this is because of beliefs that greater economic diversity means lowering the average SAT score of entering students. And the concern is that this will damage a college's standing in the annual rankings compiled by ranking institutions such as U.S. News & World Report.

Colleges and universities that drop in the rankings may indeed experience a decrease in applications and subsequently a reduction in their selectivity rating. This would lead to the college or university moving further down the standard ranking lists.

Also, alumni are distressed when their college drops in the rankings because it reduces the prestige of the degree which they hold. In many cases alumni also believe that when their alma maters reach out to more low-income students, legacy children will be displaced by “unqualified blacks.” Unhappy alumni are less likely to make substantial contributions to their alma maters. All of these factors contribute to a situation where admissions officials are extremely reluctant to consider any proposal where students with lower standardized test scores and grade point averages would be admitted.

Fine-Tuning Low-Income Student Recruitment Efforts

Rather than lowering admissions standards to attract greater numbers of students from low-income families, the National Bureau of Economic Research data suggests that the nation's most selective institutions may be able to significantly increase their number of disadvantaged students by simply fine-tuning their recruitment efforts toward particular high-achieving students at secondary schools which traditionally have not produced applicants to the top schools. These students can be identified through lists available from The College Board. They can then be contacted by mail, e-mail, or telephone and informed of the educational opportunities available to them and the financial aid that will make it possible for them to attend the nation's most selective private institutions. Recruitment budgets can be set aside to provide money for these students to come to campus and learn firsthand about educational opportunities at a highly selective institution.

The National Bureau of Economic Research paper examined only the pool of candidates who met Harvard's very high academic standards. But even this analysis found a pool of more than 5,000 low-income students who did not apply. Presumably, too, there are thousands more from low-income families whose grade point averages and standardized test scores are slightly below the standards at Harvard but are still above the median GPAs and test scores of entering students at colleges and universities ranked among the nation's best but perhaps not in the top five or 10 institutions.

Therefore, it is clear that with adequate planning and recruiting selective colleges and universities are in a position to increase the percentage of low-income students without backtracking on their academic standards for admission.

The low-income students with high academic qualifications are present in significant numbers in American high schools. The job at hand is to find and recruit them.

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