Living In A College Information Desert


This past Sunday, the New York Times ran a front-page article on a new study by Caroline M. Hoxby of Stanford and Christopher Avery of Harvard. I urge anyone who has an interest in college access and success issues to read it. Hoxby and Avery looked at high-achieving (top 4%) high school seniors across income quartiles and found that only 34 percent of high-achieving high school seniors in the bottom fourth of income distribution attended any one of the country’s 238 most selective colleges. Among top students in the highest income quartile that figure was 78 percent.

Even more striking to me was the accompanying graphic (see below) showing students' college application strategies by income quartile, which shows that 53% of high-achieving students in the lowest income quartile apply to NO schools that are a match for them academically, compared to 11% of high-income students. The problem with this is that attending less selective schools than they are qualified for makes it much less likely that these students will actually graduate. And they certainly won't be attending more selective schools if they're not even applying to them.

This phenomenon is largely due to a lack of information and access to cultural capital (i.e., knowledge about college and the associated application and financial aid processes). As a counselor quoted in the article puts it, “They [low-income students] didn’t have any other examples, any models [of not going to a local college]—who’s ever heard of Bowdoin College?”  This situation results in a tremendous waste of the country’s human capital. Millions of talented young adults are living in “college information deserts” that are analogous to the “food deserts” that nutrition experts talk about.

Food deserts are areas with little or no access to grocery stores that offer fresh produce and other foods needed to maintain a healthy diet at a reasonable price. In the same way, there are entire neighborhoods and even regions where nobody knows about or has attended selective colleges or, more importantly, that there are meaningful differences between the colleges that one might attend with respect to support, learning environments and graduation rates. As a result, as the study highlights (and as we know well from our work in the Rio Grande Valley and other communities)[1], “many top low-income students instead attend community colleges or four-year institutions closer to their homes,” where their likelihood of completing a degree may be much lower. Many community colleges and regional universities do an excellent job of educating students, but, on average, for a number of reasons, less selective institutions have lower completion rates than more selective ones, often much lower.

There is an interesting exception to the trend highlighted in the study: top low-income students in the nation’s 15 largest metropolitan areas DO often apply to selective colleges. But such students from smaller metropolitan areas—like Bridgeport; Memphis; Sacramento; Toledo, Ohio; and Tulsa, Okla.—and rural areas typically do not. Again, for me, this reinforces the idea of the importance of cultural, not just economic, capital. Students in the big cities, regardless of income, are more likely to be exposed to people who've attended selective colleges and they have access to recruiters from those colleges.

The article ends with some thoughts about implications for selective colleges’ outreach to lower-income students, but I think the study invites reflection on a broader issue: how can we systematically increase the availability of cultural capital to lower-income students? 238 colleges are not going to be able to solve this issue on their own. Whether it's through funding more college counselors or scaling up programs that put selective college graduates in lower-income high schools as tutors or advisors, lower-income high-achieving students need access to the same information and need to see the same horizon of opportunity that their high-income peers do. Otherwise, we will continue to lose out on developing the full potential of all students and slowly undermine the status of the US as a society with equal opportunity for all.

[1] See the statistics on where students attend college in the Texas Regional Action Plan documents here.  

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