How to drive low-income, high-ability student enrollment at elite schools

Study: Clear up confusion about cost and culture

Intervening with low-income, high-achieving students to correct false ideas about flagship and liberal arts universities boosts both application and enrollment rates, according to a new study presented at the American Economic Association's annual meeting.

Stanford University economics professor Caroline Hoxby and University of Virginia economics professor Sarah Turner began the investigation as a follow-up to a 2012 study co-authored by Hoxby that reported such students fail to apply to competitive colleges.

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The new study examines the effect of the Expanding College Opportunities (ECO) program. Hoxby and Turner worked with a sample of 18,000 high school seniors who scored in the top 10% of the SAT or ACT and were in the bottom third income bracket for families with students their age. Individuals at "feeder" schools that send many students to top colleges were excluded.

The variable—or ECO—group received tailored information about the net price students would pay at institutions, as well as the schools' educational resources and graduation rates. The students also received fee waivers if they applied to top schools—though many institutions do not charge low-income students application fees, they usually must first fill out paperwork.

A former study confirmed the program's positive effect on applications to "peer" colleges, those reflective of the students' academic abilities. The new study demonstrated it also improves enrollment patterns. Compared to the control group, ECO students:

  • Were 46% more likely to enroll at peer colleges;
  • Enrolled in schools boasting, on average, graduation rates 15.1% higher; and
  • Attended schools that spend 21.5% more on instruction.

Hoxby and Turner argue the ECO interventions work by challenging low-income students' notions that they cannot afford top colleges and that such schools have the same educational opportunities as less-selective institutions.

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To gain more insight into thought processes, the study also asked students why they did not apply to certain schools. Mainly, those who did not apply to state flagship universities were concerned about partying, wanted to branch out from where their high school peers were attending, or desired a campus farther from home.

Those who did not apply to liberal arts schools primarily said they did not understand the category and did not realize that math and science form a major part of course offerings (Jaschick, Inside Higher Ed, 1/5).

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