Looking for ways to make good colleges available to smart but poor kids

Thick white envelopes are landing in the mailboxes of thousands of high school juniors nationwide this summer, with hip graphics in greens and blues and colorful photos of happy looking people just like them.

In simple but carefully chosen language, the mailings try to persuade these students of something that research shows they don’t necessarily believe: that they can get into, and afford to go to, college. The contents include a very specific list of fairly selective colleges – customized especially for them – with vouchers they can use to apply to eight schools for free.

It’s not a marketing gimmick. It’s one of several earnest attempts by reputable backers to plug a massive leak through which many smart but poor high school graduates are cascading at the very time policymakers are trying to increase the proportion of the population with university degrees.

Using sophisticated combinations of test scores, census data about neighborhood characteristics and university admissions histories, these initiatives are zeroing in on students who are low income but high achieving, yet end up at poorly chosen colleges and universities with abysmal graduation rates – or forgo a higher education altogether. The effort hopes to steer them into institutions where their backgrounds suggest they are most likely to succeed.

Little noticed, and often concentrated in urban and rural schools with poor college-going rates and scant college counseling, “low-income students – even if they are high achieving – simply don’t apply to college,” said Mike Reilly, executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admission Officers.

Many have parents who didn’t go to college, either, he said. With no experience of the complicated application process, their parents are dubious that they can get their kids into – let alone afford – a high-quality institution.

“You can overcome bad advising or a bad high school environment if you’ve been raised with the expectation that you’re going to go to college,” Reilly said. “But if you’re first generation, you don’t have that college-going expectation as part of your family fabric.”

Nine out of 10 children whose parents are among the nation’s richest 25 percent go to college, compared with only six out of 10 whose families are among the poorest, according to the Century Foundation, an economic and social policy think tank.

The envelopes now coursing through the mail are from the College Board, best known for administering the SAT college admissions exam. They’re based on research by a Stanford University economist who found that reaching out to poor but smart students and providing them with information is a cheap way to boost the chances they’ll apply to colleges, including the most selective ones.

The economist, Caroline Hoxby, along with Sarah Turner, who teaches economics at the University of Virginia, mailed similar packages to 40,000 students whose SAT scores and high school grades suggested they were smart but lived in poor neighborhoods, based on census data. They provided individually tailored lists of institutions whose track records indicated they’d be good matches for given students, and information about the college application process, including admissions deadlines and the actual net tuition charged.

Once the data were collected, the cost of the experiment came to $6 per student. And the return on that investment was dramatic: Students who received the packets submitted 48 percent more applications than their classmates who didn’t, and they were 40 percent more likely to apply to colleges that matched their academic qualifications, Hoxby and Turner found.

Improving the path to college for low-income students is such a priority among policymakers that a high-level conference on the matter was held Wednesday at the National Press Club featuring Hoxby, former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard University.

Similar work has gotten under way through a project called College Match in eight low-income schools in Chicago, after research at the University of Chicago found that only 59 percent of high school seniors who said they aspired to go to college ever actually applied. Among the students who were qualified for admission to very selective colleges, only 38 percent enrolled in one.

The project, administered by the nonprofit organization MDRC, a social policy group previously called the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., assigns advisers to work with the highest-achieving students and has so far increased the likelihood they’ll apply to college.

This more labor-intensive approach costs $725, MDRC says.

“We really believe that information strategies are good for students who only need information, but there are students out there who need a little bit more,” said D. Crystal Byndloss, a senior research associate at MDRC. “Ours is more of the heavy touch, more intensive intervention.”

The idea will be expanded to New York City this fall.

The sudden interest in these students isn’t simply altruistic. The number of high school graduates has been declining since 2010, according to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, and is projected to decrease again next year. College enrollment, too, is down, the National Student Clearinghouse reports.

Of those students who are still graduating from high school, a declining percentage are affluent or white and increasing numbers are ethnic minorities and the children of immigrants. By 2020, the Western Interstate Commission estimates, minority students will make up 45 percent of the nation’s public high school graduates, meaning colleges will have to recruit them to fill seats.

“If you look at the demographic future of America, it’s not only the right thing to do educationally, but it’s the smart thing,” said Daniel Porterfield, president of Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., which has increased its financial aid budget by 40 percent in the last three years, as well as its proportion of low-income students, from 14 percent to 21 percent.

The fact that many of these students’ high school classmates still don’t go to college is “a largely preventable tragedy,” Porterfield said. “America was built on exactly this idea, that economic background should not (prevent) young people from becoming leaders in a democracy.”

Some observers are skeptical about other colleges’ commitment to this idea, however. Low-income students, they point out, require more financial aid, and – even if they’re smart – academic support to compensate for poor preparation in high school.

“There’s been a lot of focus on making sure that universities are racially and ethnically diverse, which is a good thing,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. “But they haven’t shown the same passion for socioeconomic diversity.”