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A Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low-Income Students in Non-Metro Areas

High-achieving, low-income students who don't live in major metropolitan areas are less likely to end up in highly selective colleges.

The problem is not a dearth of these students (as some college admissions staff believe), according to new research. Rather, the vast majority of those students don't ever apply.

These findings come from the working paper, "The Missing 'One-Offs': The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low Income Students," published in December by the Cambridge, Mass.,-based National Bureau of Economic Research. The paper can be purchased for $5.

Authors Christopher Avery of Harvard University and Caroline M. Hoxby of Stanford University looked into why more high-achieving, low-income students don't go to the country's most selective universities, such as Harvard or Stanford. These kinds of colleges would cost students less (thanks to those colleges' ample financial aid packages) and where they would be more likely to graduate.

The study says many low-income, high-achieving students don't apply because they lack information or the encouragement that their high-income, high-achieving counterparts have.

Most high-achieving, low-income students enrolled in highly selective colleges come from the same areas; 70 percent come from 15 major metropolitan cities, and they're more likely to attend magnet or selective high schools that have a "critical mass" of high achievers.

Researchers discovered high-achieving, low-income students who live in non-metro areas&mash;the study notes not necessarily rural, but perhaps a town rather than an urban area suburb&mash;generally are geographically isolated from other high achievers.

Because of that, they lack information about selective colleges, which can't afford to recruit these students in the way they traditionally recruit high-achieving students. For example, colleges don't have the recruitment staff to visit every area with high-achieving, low-income students because they're spread across the country.

And low-income, high-achieving students are less likely to know an adult who has attended a selective college, which means they're less likely to be encouraged to apply.

The study suggests some strategies for selective colleges to increase the number of low-income, high-achieving students, such as:


  • Use alumni, who are broadly dispersed, to inform and recruit students. The challenge is coordinating and training alumni on issues such as curriculum and financial aid policies.

  • Improve college recruitment mailing brochures so they are customized to students' situations (i.e. family's finances) and so it's easy for students to find the information they need.


The study also recently has been featured on National Public Radio.

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