Our brightest low-income high schoolers are overwhelmingly unlikely to apply to our best colleges, and it's bad news for economic growth and for income equality

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The furor over student debt in this country takes aim at a noble cause -- quality education at a good price -- but obscures an even nobler cause, which is getting more students to take on more debt to obtain more skills in a modern economy that doesn't pay living wages to uneducated workers. Seen in this light, the single most important issue in higher education isn't cost, it's really something more like advertising. If we want students from disadvantaged areas to attend good colleges and obtain modern skills, we should be thinking about ways to entice them, not scare them with blaring headlines: "SIX FIGURES IN DEBT AND UNEMPLOYED AT 22."

There's a quieter, more lower-case crisis that is potentially even more dangerous for the economy: Smart, low-income students who never consider applying to our best colleges -- even though the education would both cost less and lead to higher-paying jobs.


Some of the poorest high schoolers in the country are also among our top-performers. These "low-income, high-achieving" students come from the poorest 25 percent of families, but their grades and SAT scores place them in the top 10 -- or even top 5 percent -- of all students. Getting these students in our best colleges should be a national ambition. It would increase social mobility, raise national productivity, increase taxable income, shrink our deficit, cut income-support payments ... you get the point.

But the point is, we're failing. In fact, the majority of these smart poor students don't apply to any selective college or university, according to a new paper by Caroline M. Hoxby and Christopher Avery -- even though the most selective schools would actually cost them less, after counting financial aid. Poor students with practically the same grades as their richer classmates are 75 percent less likely to apply to selective colleges.

Kids with richer, better-educated parents tend to have higher grades and test scores, as you might expect. But it might surprise you to learn that about 40 percent of the top-performing students come from the poorer half of the country.

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Although a "critical mass" of the country's brightest students tend to live in country's densest and richest in urban areas -- New England, New York, southern Florida, coastal California -- the poor students who don't apply to selective schools are more likely to be scattered across the country. They aren't surrounded by a network of teachers and college counselors who know what advice to give a top-flight student. They're not part of a legacy and tradition of high-performing students reaching for the best colleges. Instead, they tend to "come from districts too small to support selective public high schools, are not in a critical mass of fellow high achievers, and are unlikely to encounter a teacher or schoolmate from an older cohort who attended a selective college."


If the antidote is more information and more encouragement for poor smart students, how do we reach them with more information and encouragement? This is trickier problem than it initially seems. There are four ways that most colleges reach out to students: (1) College board mailing lists; (2) College counselors; (3) College access programs; (4) High school visits. But some of the most common solutions aren't feasible for many low-income top-performers. It's not feasible to have admissions staff visit every high school in the country that might have a handful of smart, poor students (the researchers estimate you'd have to quintuple the number of trips). It's also not likely that poor families in rural America will be game to send their children on fact-finding missions to the Ivy League corridor.

So the researchers propose more ambitious ideas. First, they suggest turning alum networks into a proxy army of admissions officers. (A separate study showed that selective universities have at least one alum in the vast majority of U.S. counties.) Rather than advertise through brochures, which don't target low-income teens, the researchers wonder whether there might be opportunities in social media and digital advertising to directly appeal to talented students who could attend a top private institution but are more likely to apply to community college.

Colleges are good at looking for exceptional students from poor families where the college is "instead of looking for low-income students where the students are," Hoxby and Avery conclude. And the national media is good at telling scary stories about student debt from the very scariest 1 percent of the student loan population. If both institutions looked harder for our education system's quieter crisis -- the promising students who don't go to school or apply to non-selective colleges -- it would make the entire country richer.