College & Workforce Readiness

College Information Intervention Needed for Low-Income Students

By Caralee J. Adams — June 27, 2013 4 min read
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High-achieving, low-income high school students don’t get enough information about the benefits of going to a selective college—including the fact that it might be less expensive for them to attend than other schools.

New research shows that sending a packet of customized college information to those students can significantly increase the number of applications they send to selective colleges. And the “information invention” costs just $6 per student, according to the discussion paper for the Hamilton Project by Caroline Hoxby of Stanford University and Sarah Turner of the University of Virginia.

In a pilot of the Expanding Economic Opportunities Project, the researchers sent materials about the application process, the cost of college, potentially available financial aid, and application-fee waivers to low-income students who scored in the top 10 percent on the ACT or SAT. Rather than coming from a specific college, the information was neutral, but tailored to individual students.

The aim was to educate students about the possible advantages of attending a selective school, such as individualized advising, instructional resources, and higher graduation rates. Also, low-income students often don’t realize they would likely qualify for generous amounts of financial aid and focus on the sticker price, rather than the estimated net cost. In fact, the paper notes it is less expensive on average for low-income students to attend selective institutions than less-selective four-year colleges.

The researchers found it wasn’t so much a matter of choice as it was that students often lacked information to give them a clear picture of the benefits.

“Students really did aspire to go to the best college that they could get into,” Hoxby said yesterday. “Many people believe that low-income students simply do not want to go to a selective college, that they are determined to go to their local college or university—there are cultural reasons that make them feel uncomfortable. ... We did not find any evidence for this.”

When given the informational packets by mail, and followed up with email communication, the low-income students responded positively, a randomized controlled review of the project found. The intervention prompted students to submit 48 percent more applications to selective schools, with 66 percent sending to five or more institutions. More of the students also enrolled in those college, which the paper estimates will increase the likelihood they will graduate and translate into higher lifetime earnings.

The challenge is that there are eight times as many high-achieving, low-income students out there in the United States as are applying to selective colleges and universities, Hoxby said in a press call yesterday. The vast majority are applying to schools where they were much more qualified that their college classmates or to less-selective institutions, and only a few were applying to peer colleges where students have the same level of preparation.

This matters because many of the selective colleges have 10 to 20 times the amount of instructional resources available to help these students than nonselective colleges, she said. “Students are really giving up on an opportunity to have a great college experience and a lot of resources devoted to their education,” said Hoxby, as well as often paying less because of the financial aid they can often receive.

Among the few high-income, low-income students who do attend selective schools, other research by Hoxby and Turner have found they thrive where their preparation is similar to their peers.

Hoxby and Turner propose the project be expanded to serve more high-achieving, low-income students. The College Board and ACT Inc. are uniquely positioned to implement these interventions full scale, the paper says.

Connie Betterton, vice president of higher education research and partnership at the College Board, says the New York-based organization has been working with Hoxby to bring the project to scale.

For students in the graduating class of 2014, the College Board has committed to sending information packets to the top 10 percent to 15 percent of test-takers who meet the low-income criteria (approximate family income less than $40,000). This will total about 15,000 to 20,000 students, with the packets costing the College Board about $8-$10 per student. About 7,000 packets were mailed to students in May based on their PSAT and SAT scores, says Betterton.

The College Board’s involvement with this intervention is part of a larger Access to Opportunity Campaign.

Ed Colby, director of public relations at ACT, said in an email statement that the Iowa City, Ia.-based testing organization strongly approves of the ECO project, which is directly aligned with ACT’s mission of helping people achieve education and workplace success. “We have invited the ECO leaders to come to Iowa City to work with us this summer and are planning and considering multiple actions to support the project,” he wrote.

Eventually, Hoxby said, they would like to expand the project to provide information to students as early as 9th or 10th grade, rather than 12th, and include all college-ready, low-income students.

A version of this news article first appeared in the College Bound blog.