How Top Colleges Can Attract Smart (if Low-Income) Students


Even as colleges work harder to build racially and economically diverse classes, many are struggling to find qualified applicants from low-income households. A recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that, of low-income students with ACT scores in the top 10 percent of all test-takers, a vast majority do not apply to a single selective college or university.

Why Aren’t Low-Income Students Applying?

The problem isn’t that low-income students aren’t interested in attending selective schools. Rather, they choose not to apply because they lack key information about competitive universities or they’re clouded by misinformation.

First, many low-income students just don’t know much about selective universities.They often come from high schools that rarely or never send students to prestigious universities, so they don’t receive encouragement or advice from successful peers. Attending a private liberal arts college or research university simply never occurs to them because they know virtually no one who has done it before.

Second, because low-income students usually don’t know much about selective colleges and universities, they often make incorrect assumptions. Students told researchers they didn’t apply to liberal arts colleges because they were “not liberal” or didn’t “know what that is.”

Finally, lots of low-income students see a $40,000-per-year price tag and assume a private college is a financial impossibility. For students from families in the bottom quintile of annual income, sticker price at elite colleges often exceeds their parents’ salaries. Few low-income students realize how much financial aid they could receive.

What Schools Can Do to Attract Top-Tier Low-Income Students

Selective schools can take several steps to encourage applications from low-income students, but two specific strategies stand out as particularly effective.

First, researchers at Stanford University (p. 23) found that simply providing high-achieving students with more information about selective colleges early in their college search encouraged more applications. Early interventions boosted the number of students submitting five or more applications by 27 percent. The increase in number of applications applied to every category of college, from state flagship universities to private liberal arts colleges.

Second, and more importantly, colleges can let low-income students know about financial aid opportunities before they start filling out college applications. Since many low-income students assume private education is beyond their financial reach, information about grants and scholarships can be a decisive factor in encouraging them to apply. In fact, a study from the Brookings Institute found that, for low-income students, the most selective colleges were often more affordable than almost every other higher education option. Helping students understand their financial options, by sending them an award letter or an estimation of their expected awards, for example, is one of the best ways to encourage them to apply.


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