Consider the situation of high-achieving students from low-income families. In some ways, what happens to them has a disproportionate effect on the degree of economic and social mobility in U.S. society. One would expect a disproportionate share of this group to show upward mobility. But at least in college choices, many of them are heading for nonselective schools that seem below their ability level. Caroline M. Hoxby and Christopher Avery present the evidence in \”The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low-Income Students.\” The conference paper was presented last week at the Spring 2013 Conference on the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity; Brookings also put out put a readable summary of \”Key Findings\” with some infographics.
Hoxby and Avery define the group of interest here as students from families with annual income less than $41,472 (the bottom quarter of households), SAT scores in the top 10% of the distribution of those taking the test (which is about 40% of high school graduates), and high school grade point average of A- or higher. They have data from the SAT folks on where students apply, based on where they have their SAT scores sent. If the student\’s test score is close to the median SAT score of those attending, they call it a \”match.\” Students might also \”reach\” for a school where the median SAT score is above their own, or look for a \”safety school\” where the median test score is below their own. But the striking result is that so many high-achieving students from low-income families tend to apply to non-selective schools.
The top figure shows application patterns for high-achieving students from high-income (top quarter of income distribution) families, while the figure beneath it shows application patterns for high-achieving students from low-income families.
Hoxby and Avery write: \”[W]e show that a large number–probably the vast majority–of very high-achieving students from low-income families do not apply to a selective college or university. This is in contrast to students with the same test scores and grades who come from high-income backgrounds: they are overwhelmingly likely to apply to a college whose median student has achievement much like their own. This gap is puzzling because the subset of high-achieving, low-income students who do apply to selective institutions are just as likely to enroll and progress toward a degree at the same pace as high-income students with equivalent test scores and grades. Added to the puzzle is the fact that very selective institutions not only offer students much richer instructional, extracurricular, and other resources, they also offer high-achieving, low-income students so much financial aid that the students would often pay less to attend a selective institution than the far less selective or non-selective post-secondary institutions that most of them do attend.\”