Stevenson, Wolfers examine why many top colleges may have a skewed view of their potential students

December 18, 2012

In their Bloomberg View column, Ford School economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers examine the findings of a recent study showing that high achievers from low-income families rarely apply to top colleges. "The real crisis in American education," they write, "is that our best colleges never see a large chunk of our smartest students."

The findings are published by economists Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery in a National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) working paper, "The Missing 'One-Offs': The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low Income Students." ( Hoxby and Avery find that the vast majority of high-performing low-income students apply to less selective schools and a surprising number don't apply to postsecondary institutions at all.

While seemingly irrational, the behavior of avoiding applications to highly selective private schools is, nevertheless, a pervasive one, according to the study. As a result, elite schools perceive high-achieving low-income applicants as far more rare than they actually are.

Wolfers and Stevenson point out that low-income students' behavior is hardly surprising, as the most selective colleges carry the largest price tags. Yet in recent years, such elite schools as Harvard, Yale, Princeton and others have adopted policies to reduce the lack of income diversity on their campuses and, in many cases, bring the cost of tuition for qualified low-income students to zero.

According to the study, when low-income students do apply to more selective institutions, their achievements tend to mirror similarly qualified high-income students. The study also notes that such low-income students often come from "information rich" environments, where they meet and form a critical mass with other high-achieving students. Stevenson and Wolfers suggest that eliminating small barriers, such as the cost of disseminating admissions test scores, might help tap low-income talent.