The $6 Envelope That Gets Low-Income Kids Into College

Students aren't getting into top schools because they're not applying. Personalized information packets can change that.

** ADVANCE FOR RELEASE MONDAY, JUNE 7, AND THEREAFTER ** In this photo taken May 22, 2010, Brownie Sibrian, waits to enter a Latino graduation celebration, sponsored by the Latino Student Assn. and MEChA, about a week before graduation, on the campus of Whittier College in Whittier, Calif. AP Photo/Reed Saxon) (National Journal)

Every high school in America has at least one outstanding student with straight A's and stellar SAT scores. But if a student is low-income and a rarity at her high school — maybe the only Ivy-League-caliber applicant that school has produced in years — she's not likely to know she might qualify for admission to a top university, and even be eligible for scholarships. Many such students opt for less selective schools close to home simply because they don't know they have other options.

Most efforts to get high-achieving, low-income kids to apply to better colleges are expensive and require high social investment such as one-on-one mentoring. But a recent pilot project suggests that changing the course of an 18-year-old's life may be as simple as mailing a $6 information packet.

"It turns out that these interventions are just as effective or more effective than a lot of the in-person interventions that cost at least 100 times as much, and sometimes 300 or 400 times as much," Stanford researcher Caroline Hoxby said recently at a forum hosted by the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution.

Hoxby and her colleague, the University of Virginia's Sarah Turner, combined test scores, income, and other data to find high-achieving but low-income students, and deliver relevant college-application information to their homes. The project was such a success that they're teaming with the College Board and ACT, administrators of the two standardized tests most often required for college admission, to try to put similar packets into the hands of every low-income academic superstar in the country.

About twice as many high-income students have credentials that qualify them to attend a top college as low-income students. But as the charts below show, top colleges receive eight times as many applications from wealthy kids, Hoxby said. Seventy percent of students at elite colleges are from families in the highest income quartile, according to the Century Foundation. That's despite the fact that poor kids have the most to gain from attending a selective college. Many are eligible for full scholarships, and an elite education can be a ticket not just out of poverty but also into the highest tax brackets.

(Hamilton Project)

Hoxby and Turner wanted to see if simply providing better information was enough to help high-achievers make more informed college-application decisions. They spent about a decade compiling data on U.S. college admissions requirements, deadlines, and estimated net costs, and then figured out how to target students based on SAT and ACT score, self-reported grade-point average, and geographic and high school demographics that indicated a low family income.

They used the data to create customized information packets, which were mailed to about 40,000 high-achieving high school seniors from 2010 to 2012. The snazzy expandable folders included information on colleges that fit the individual student's academic profile, including application guidelines, financial aid tips, and eight no-paperwork fee waivers already personalized with the applicant's name. The information was duplicated on a website students could access with a password.

The results of the Expanding College Opportunities intervention were dramatic. Students who received the packets submitted 19 percent more applications, applied to schools with better graduation rates and higher rates of per-student spending, and were 31 percent more likely to be admitted to a peer college — defined as an institution that fit their academic profile — than peers in a control group. That's despite the fact that the researcher's surveys suggested that only 40 percent of students who received the packets remembered seeing them at all. Hoxby and Turner calculate that if the packets had been sent by a trusted third party, such as the College Board, more students would have opened them, and the recipients would have been 78 percent more likely to get into a peer college. The first chart below reflects the impact on the students who recieved the packets; the second reflects the impact the researchers estimate the packets would have had if they had been sent by a trusted third party.

(Hoxby and Turner, Hamilton Project, 2013)

"This is not something, I want to emphasize, that a college or university could do for itself, or that a high-achieving student could do for him or herself," Hoxby said. But, she added, her team's work is easily scalable. "Once we put together all the data to do it, there's no reason why you can't do it for every low-income high-achieving student," she said.

"As an economic proposition, it has an incredibly high ratio of benefits-to-costs," Hoxby said of the intervention — not to to mention the educational and social benefits of mixing smart students from all backgrounds on a college campus. Low-income students who are admitted to selective colleges graduate at the same rates and earn grades on par with those of their wealthier peers, Hoxby has shown in previous research. The problem isn't that low-income students can't succeed in top colleges. It's that they often don't know that an elite education is within their grasp.