'No Point in Applying': Why Poor Students Are Missing at Top Colleges

High-achieving low-income students too often don't know that they have a good chance of getting into--and affording--an elite school.
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Eric Risberg/AP Images

Around the country, high-achieving recent high school grads have unpacked their shower caddies, flip flops, and smart phone chargers, and begun to settle in at elite colleges like Columbia, Amherst, and Stanford. On campus they’re discovering countless resources, bright peers, and illustrious faculty. And for the rest of their lives, they’ll enjoy the benefits of having a top university tattooed across their transcript and resume.

But many high-achieving students are left out of this experience. Those excluded come disproportionately from families on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. One recent investigation reported that students from the bottom 50 percent of the income distribution comprise just 14 percent of the undergraduate population at the United States’ most competitive universities.

To find out why, I recently interviewed Karen (whose name I’ve changed for privacy reasons) as part of a study of 900 American public high school valedictorians and their college choice process. By all measures, Karen was a terrific student. In addition to graduating first in her class, she scored in the top one percent of seniors nationally on the SAT, earning a perfect score on one of the sections of the test. She was impressive outside of the classroom, too. She led more than one of her school’s academic teams and played in the band. She also grew up in a family where money was tight, so she held down a part-time job assisting the elderly and worked seasonally in agriculture.

Karen could have attended one of the nation’s top universities. She had the grades. She had the scores. She had the extracurriculars. She even had the type of work experience that stands out in an elite college’s applicant pool. Moreover, she grew up in a family where no one had ever attended college. Based on her record and background, many elite universities would have been happy to accept her. And based on her parents’ income, many even would have let her attend for free. But this top student went a different route. She enrolled in a local, less selective college that charged her more while providing fewer resources.

Karen’s story is one of many. Throughout the country, high achievers enroll in colleges that don’t match their academic credentials. These students are smart and hardworking, and one might expect them to do well wherever they enroll. But research shows they are more likely to excel—and excel at a higher level—if they attend an institution where their classmates are similarly accomplished. Specifically, they are more likely to complete their bachelor’s degrees, go on to graduate school, and enjoy higher earnings. Furthermore, the magnitude of this advantage is far from trivial.

And yet many poorer top students—despite their achievements—never give themselves the chance to hold an acceptance letter from an elite college, review the details of the financial aid offer, and ponder the proven advantages of attending. Of the valedictorians I studied, only 50 percent of those from lower- or working-class backgrounds applied to one of the 61 private colleges rated “most selective” by U.S. News & World Report. In comparison, about 80 percent of the valedictorians from upper-middle- and upper-class families applied to one of these schools. Yet when poorer valedictorians applied to an elite private college, they were just as likely to be admitted as wealthier valedictorians who applied. And because of the generous financial aid packages these institutions provide, poorer valedictorians who were admitted were just as likely to enroll as their wealthier counterparts. In other words, the critical factor that prevented poorer valedictorians from attending a top college was simply failing to fill out an application and click “Submit.”

Poorer top students are less likely to apply to America’s best universities for a variety of reasons. To start, high achievers throughout the socioeconomic spectrum receive insufficient, impersonal guidance about colleges from their public high schools. Valedictorians in my study reported that their schools primarily provided information about college options and the college admissions process to students en masse. As a result, valedictorians learned mainly about the in-state, public colleges that their high school’s graduates most frequently attended. Valedictorians struggled to get a one-on-one meeting with their often overstretched counselors, and even in these meetings counselors did not refine the college options they discussed to take into account the glittering achievements and tremendous potential of the top student before them. Counselors rarely suggested that valedictorians consider out-of-state or private colleges—and hardly ever mentioned elite universities. And when valedictorians took the initiative to ask about these options themselves, they all too often faced counselors who were uninformed and who sometimes even tried to steer them away from top institutions.

Without adequate college counseling from their schools, high achievers turn to their families. But the guidance families are able to provide differs greatly by social class. As in many other families where no one has attended college, Karen’s parents viewed all college degrees as equal. As Karen told it, their attitude was: “It’s a school. You’ll get a degree.”

Presented by

Alexandria Walton Radford is an associate program director for postsecondary education at the nonprofit research institute RTI International. She is the author of Top Student, Top School? How Social Class Shapes Where Valedictorians Go to College.

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