Opportunity Makers: Influencing Opportunity for Low-Income Students


OPPORTUNITY MAKERS:  Caroline M. Hoxby & Sarah E. Turner.  Two of the people identified by the Chronicle of Higher Education as making a difference during 2013.

Caroline M. Hoxby and Sarah E. Turner have devised an inexpensive way to get high-achieving, low-income students to consider selective colleges, an idea that has received widespread attention this year.  They're opening doors for low-income students

In a phenomenon called "undermatching," such students usually end up at places with fewer resources, less-prepared classmates, and lower graduation rates.  Ms. Hoxby, a professor of economics at Stanford University, and Ms. Turner, a professor of economics at the University of Virginia, devised an experiment in which they mailed college information to high-school students whose family incomes were in the bottom 25 percent and whose test scores were in the top 10 percent.

In the randomized trial, the professors sent one group of students general college-search information, another group information on college costs after financial aid, a third group application-fee waivers, and a fourth group all of those. A control group got nothing. The mailings cost only $6 per student.

And they worked. Students who received the combined information—and remembered getting it—submitted 48 percent more applications than did those in the control group. They applied to colleges that had a 17-percent higher graduation rate and an 86-point higher median SAT score. And the students enrolled in colleges that were 46 percent more likely to be places where their classmates were equally prepared.  Getting students to go to certain colleges wasn't really the goal, Ms. Hoxby told The Chronicle this past spring. It was to help them choose. "To not make decisions well simply because you don't know what's out there," she said, "that's sad."

Now she and Ms. Turner, both 47, are collaborating with the College Board to expand their work. Already packets based on the economists' experiment have been sent to 28,000 high-school seniors, and the College Board plans to email them, too. It also expects to expand the outreach to younger students. About 35,000 high-achieving, low-income students graduate from high school each year, and very few apply to any of the country's 230 or so most selective colleges, according to a previous study by Ms. Hoxby and another researcher.

At least one state, Delaware, is also joining the effort, announcing this fall that it would collaborate with the College Board and send information to an additional 2,000 students.  While the researchers have found that families are wary of information from colleges themselves, Harvard University has said it will conduct similar outreach, encouraging students to consider it and other selective institutions.  It's been a big year for the idea of undermatching: White House officials met with college presidents to discuss it, and it underpins Michelle Obama's recent focus on expanding college access.

Still, not everyone is sold on the solution. Catharine Bond Hill, president of Vassar College and an economist, argued in a letter to The New York Times that as long as many selective colleges "reject talented low-income applicants because of students' financial need," then without extra aid, "getting more low-income students to apply to top colleges will just result in more rejections. Of course, students could be rejected from selective colleges for any number of reasons. But nobody goes to one without applying first.