Across the United States, college administrators are poring over student essays, recommendation letters and SAT scores as they select a freshman class for the fall.
If this is like most years, administrators at top schools such as Harvard and Stanford will try hard to find talented high school students from poor families in a push to increase the socioeconomic diversity on campus and to counter the growing concern that highly selective colleges cater mainly to students from privileged backgrounds.
Top schools often offer scholarships that not only include free tuition, but also free room and board for top students from poor families — meaning it can be less expensive for these students to attend Harvard than a state school or a community college, says Caroline Hoxby, an economist at Stanford who tracks these students.
Each year, however, colleges are confronted with a paradox: No matter how many incentives they provide, enrollment of highly talented, low-income students barely seems to budge.
After Harvard offered what was, in essence, a free college education to students whose families earned under $40,000 a year, Hoxby says, "the number of students whose families had income below that threshold changed by only about 15 students, and the class at Harvard is about 1,650 freshmen."
Hoxby says some college administers had confided to her that they had reluctantly come to the conclusion that the pool of low-income students with top academic credentials was just limited, and there wasn't much they could do to change that.
But in an analysis published with Christopher Avery in December, Hoxby has shown that this conclusion isn't true. There is in fact a vast pool of highly talented, low-income students; they just aren't ending up in top schools.
Hoxby says in an interview that she asked herself why talented students might escape the attention of college administrators, when the administrators were looking so hard for these students.
"The students whom they see are the students who apply," she says, of admissions officers. "And if a student doesn't apply to any selective college or university, it's impossible for admissions staff to see that they are out there."
Hoxby found that the majority of academically gifted low-income students come from a handful of places in the country: About 70 percent of them come from 15 large metropolitan areas. These areas often have highly regarded public high schools, such as Stuyvesant in New York City or Thomas Jefferson in the Washington, D.C., area.
Low-income high-achieving students at these schools have close to 100 percent odds of attending an Ivy League school or other highly selective college, Hoxby says.
The reasons are straightforward: These schools boast top teachers and immense resources. They have terrific guidance counselors. Highly selective colleges send scouts to these schools to recruit top talent. And perhaps most important, students in these schools are part of a peer group where many others are also headed to highly selective colleges.
Hoxby and Avery found that top students who do not live in these major metropolitan areas were significantly less likely to end up at a highly selective school. These students were far less likely to find themselves in a pipeline that ended at an Ivy League school.
"Imagine a student who is the only student who is a likely candidate for a place like Harvard or Stanford or University of Chicago — and he's not just the only student in his or her high school, but he's the only student that that high school has graduated like that in, say, three or four years," Hoxby says.
Without mentors and academically talented peers, Hoxby says, many of these students fail to apply to schools that can offer them a premium education free of charge. And because the students are widely dispersed across the 42,000 high schools in the country, college recruiters have a hard time finding them.
Hoxby is working on interventions to reach these students and to give them a clear picture of their choices. She doesn't believe all these students need to necessarily end up at a highly selective college, but she wants them to clearly understand that they have that choice.
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We're getting into the time of year when colleges pick their next freshman class. Schools are always on the lookout for bright kids from poor families. They want to increase the diversity on campus.
That's not always so easy though. And NPR's science correspondent Shankar Vedantam has been looking at some research that tries to understand why.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: OK, students at top universities tend to come from wealthy families, upper income families; that's the trend. What makes it so hard to break that trend?
VEDANTAM: Well, colleges have been trying very, very hard over the years to try and change that trend. So colleges send out people to the top high schools and they try and recruit students and say please apply to our institution. Many are offering very generous incentive programs. So a couple of years ago, for example, Harvard said if your family income is under $40,000, you cannot only get free tuition at Harvard, you can get free room and board.
I spoke with Caroline Hoxby. She's an economist at Stanford University. And I asked her what effect this incentive had on the enrollment of high achieving poor students at Harvard. Here's what she told me.
CAROLINE HOXBY: Well, enrollment didn't change very much. The number of students whose families had income below that threshold changed by only about 15 students, and the class at Harvard is about 1,650 freshmen.
INSKEEP: Wow, that's less than a one percent change, and you've taken the economics totally out of this. It's basically free to go to Harvard and they still don't have high achieving students showing up in any numbers.
VEDANTAM: Yeah, it was incredibly frustrating. And some college administrators told Hoxby that they had reluctantly come to the conclusion that there were only so many high achieving low income students, that it was a fixed pool, which is why increasing the incentives didn't make a difference really in the enrollment rate.
Hoxby said she decided to conduct a study and she said she started by asking herself what are the constraints that might keep a school from learning about a highly qualified student from a poor family?
HOXBY: The students whom they see are the students who apply. And if a student does not apply to any selective college or university, it's impossible for admissions staff to see that they are out there.
VEDANTAM: So what Hoxby found in her study is that the vast majority, 70 percent of low income high achieving students who end up going to these top colleges, they come from 15 metropolitan areas. So if you're a student at Stuyvesant in New York or Thomas Jefferson in Northern Virginia, these are high schools where you have college counselors. You have, if you're a kid, you see lots of peers going off to top colleges. College staff come to visit.
There's a whole process that encourages you to apply to these top colleges. And Hoxby and her colleague, Christopher Avery, find that if you're a high achieving low income student at one of these high schools, your odds of going to a top college are close to 100 percent. But if you're a high achieving low income student outside one of these metropolitan areas, your odds of going to these top colleges really plummets.
HOXBY: Imagine a student who is the only student who is a likely candidate for a place like Harvard or Stanford or University of Chicago, and he's not just the only student in his or her high school, but he's the only student that that high school has graduated like that in, say, three or four years.
VEDANTAM: So the thing to remember, Steve, is that there are 42,000 high schools in the United States. And what Hoxby and her colleague are finding is that outside of these big metropolitan areas, there is actually a vast reservoir of high achieving low income students who would be very good fits for the top colleges but are simply not applying.
INSKEEP: But they're in Indiana. They're in Kansas, wherever, and they don't have the connections or the expectations, you're saying, to even apply in the first place.
VEDANTAM: That's exactly right, that there isn't a mechanism, there isn't a social mechanism, there isn't a peer group that basically says this is what you do when you have grades that are this good.
INSKEEP: So what are colleges going to do about that?
VEDANTAM: Well, Hoxby is trying to come up with a way to reach the students. And she's actually conducting a separate study where she basically says let me take results from the SAT or the other standardized tests, which can identify these highly qualified students; and let me try and find a way to reach out to them. And so she's conducting a study where she's reaching out to the students and explaining to them, you have options to go to these top colleges.
Just because the sticker price at Harvard says 40,000 or 50,000 dollars a year, that doesn't mean that's what you will have to pay. For you the price might actually be zero.
She's not saying, by the way, that every one of these students has to be applying to an Ivy League college. But what she is saying is these students need to understand what their options are.
INSKEEP: There needs to be some micro-targeting.
INSKEEP: Shankar, thanks very much.
VEDANTAM: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Shankar Vedantam. You follow him on Twitter @hiddenbrain. You follow this program @morningedition, @nprgreene, @nprinskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.