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Top-Achieving Poor Students Go Unnoticed by Some Elite Universities

Why are some of America’s top academic achievers are missing out on a shot to attend the best universities? As part of the PBS NewsHour’s continuing coverage on inequality in U.S., Jeffrey Brown talks with Caroline Hoxby of Stanford University, an author of a new study on the issue, and Michele Minter of Princeton University.

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    And to a second story about students from poorer backgrounds.

    Why are some of the top achievers missing out on a shot to go to some of the best universities?

    Jeffrey Brown explores that question, part of our continuing coverage on inequality in America.


    For years, colleges and universities have been trying to diversify their student body, not just by ethnicity, but by income as well.

    But despite high-profile moves at some schools to do so, including big boosts in financial assistance and even full tuition, the numbers are still falling short of the goal. A recent study is shedding new light on the problem and what's behind it. The analysis found just 34 percent of high-achieving seniors from the lower end of the income ladder attend one of the 238 most select schools.

    By comparison, nearly 80 percent of high-achieving students from the upper end of the income ladder attend an elite school. The study also found there are many more high-achieving students from lower-income backgrounds than schools now know of or are recruiting.

    One the study's lead authors, Caroline Hoxby of Stanford University, joins us now. Also with us, Michele Minter, vice provost for institutional equity and diversity at Princeton University. And I learned just now as we sit down that they are sisters.

    So, welcome to both of you.

  • CAROLINE HOXBY, Stanford University:

    Thank you very much.


    Caroline Hoxby, let me start with you.

    Describe the key problem that you found in this study, the disconnect between low-income students not finding their way to the best schools.


    Well, the problem, as universities and colleges saw it, was that their just were not very many low-income high-achieving student.

    And so if a selective college wanted to diversify its student body, wanted to have students of all income levels, it just didn't find very many low-income student in its applicant pool. And the colleges and universities thought, look, we just cannot diversify our student bodies very much more without cutting our admissions standards so much that we will have some underprepared students.

    That was the problem as they saw it. And what my co-author, Chris Avery and I did, was that we looked at the entire high school graduating class of 2008, so every single student in the United States who had taken a college assessment exam, either the SAT, the PSAT, or the ACT exam. And we looked to see how many low-income high-achieving students there were.

    And we found that there were anything from eight times as many as colleges had thought there were to 15 times as many as colleges had thought there were.


    And you also, though, showed that the students — the students don't know to reach further in many cases, right?


    That's right.

    So the — as soon as we found this out, we thought, well, why are they not applying? If these students could get in, what is the explanation for why they're not applying? So, we tried to eliminate some explanations.

    And the first one we looked at was, well, are they not able to afford these very selective colleges and universities? But interestingly enough, for high-achieving students, the more selective the university they attend, the less they will pay. So these students are actually often paying more to attend a community college or a non-selective four-year college than they would pay to attend Harvard, Yale, or Princeton.

    So that's really not the explanation. Those very selective colleges are less expensive for them.


    And, in brief, what is the explanation? Why don't they reach out?


    Well, the colleges are reaching out and have made …


    No, I mean the students.


    Oh, the students.


    Why don't the students know?


    Well, we think — we hypothesize that the reason the students don't know is that the low-income high-achieving students who do not apply to selective colleges and universities are fairly isolated.

    That doesn't mean that they're rural, but that they're one of the only two or three very high-achieving students in their high school. So, we might be talking about just an ordinary high school in a working-class kind of neighborhood. It doesn't have that many students who are qualified to go to a Princeton or a Harvard or a Yale.

    And the counselor is not particularly expert in knowing what colleges are out there. Maybe the high school counselor says to the student, you know, you really ought to go to college. I think you ought to go to a good college, but the high school counselor doesn't have the time or the expertise to be able to help the student sort out the full range of colleges in the United States and know about all the financial aid opportunities that are out there.


    All right, let me — Michele Minter, from your point — standpoint at one of the very elite schools, I guess, how can — why do you not know? Why do you not that all these more students are out there, if there are that many who are eligible and qualified?

  • MICHELE MINTER, Princeton University:


    Our admissions office tries very hard to reach anyone we can reach to let them know that Princeton would be a good place for them, and we offer very, very generous financial aid. So, as Caroline has said, we can make Princeton affordable for any student.

    The challenge often is that low-income students don't take the SAT or the ACT or an advanced placement test until late in their high school career, often during their senior year. And that's a very late point for us to be able to reach them.

    We then can send some mailings. We can try and use e-mail. But a lot of what really matters for low-income students, if they're going to leave the community that they're from, if they're going to go outside of their comfort zone, is they need a lot of personal contact. And it's very hard to do that on short notice or to get our admissions officers out to students who are relatively isolated in their high schools in person.

    So, we do the best we can, but it can be very difficult to just figure out where they are.


    So, you — I don't know how much you have had a chance to look at your sister's study here, but what do you do now? How do you — how big a problem is it for you? And how do you do a better job of reaching — of reaching — of reaching out more?


    We don't think it's a problem.

    We think it's a tremendous opportunity. We already had a trustee committee chaired by our president, Shirley Tilghman, looking at how we did outreach to low-income students and trying to figure out if there really were more out there. It was exactly what Caroline was saying, that there was some concern that we really were tapping out the whole pool.

    This data is remarkable because it tells us that we are not tapping out the whole pool, that there are lots of low-income students who could achieve at the level of Princeton and other selective colleges. So we're very excited about that. We think it creates an opportunity for us.

    The challenge then is to figure out how we do the outreach so that we can actually get to those students. That's still the logistical challenge.


    Well, Caroline Hoxby, it may be an opportunity going forward, but it seems like a problem right now, right? We talk a lot about — on this program about divisions within the country, economic, educational, social. You're showing that — part of that division, right?


    Well, yes.

    But I think there is — let me say sort of the positive version, the way I look at this. The first is, the colleges and universities are already very successful in recruiting low-income high-achieving students from some high schools. So any high school that they have found that in the past has had a number of high-achieving low-income students, they are there every year, and they are very successful at getting those students to apply to very selective colleges and universities.

    And then, once they apply, they give them generous financial aid, those students actually enroll, and they do very well. They graduate at very high graduation rates, and they get good grades. So, in some sense, with the students they have found, they have already had enormous success.

    I think we are dealing here with intelligent students. And I think the probability that we are not going to be able to get them to be informed enough to make college application decisions that are more — that are just more information-driven, so that they realize their full range of opportunities is small. I think we will be able to get over this hurdle. This is a little hurdle.

    I think what people had thought was that kids from low-income backgrounds just couldn't ever make it into the ranks of the high achievers, and that would be a huge hurdle to overcome. If you think I need to change all of their circumstances in order to get a low-income student to be prepared to study at a place like Princeton, then, of course, that's enormous.

    Here, we're talking about a small hurdle. We have these students out there. It's an amazing opportunity for the United States to increase intergenerational mobility, to increase income mobility, to expand the number of communities and neighborhoods who know about educational opportunity in the United States, if we can make contact with these students, which shouldn't be that difficult.


    Well, let me ask you finally, Michele Minter, we are going to be looking at a lot of this issue, of course, later on with the Supreme Court looking at some of these things in a big case.

    But I just wonder, from your perspective at Princeton, how do you define Princeton and other schools' role in making sure there is a diversity of lower-income, in particular, students and less divisions within the society?



    We think that's one of the most important parts of our mission. We want to have a socioeconomically diverse student body. We don't think we're doing our job if we don't do that. And that's why we have put in place such generous financial aid. That was the first barrier that we perceived.

    We are failing at the elite colleges if we don't create social mobility. That's one of our biggest responsibilities. So we're very excited about the opportunity to do more here, and we think we have an important role to play.


    Michele Minter, Caroline Hoxby, thank you both very much.


    You're very welcome.


    Thank you.

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