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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 in, 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 for free.

Colleges for poor students
Franklin & Marshall College

It’s not a marketing gimmick. It’s one of several earnest attempts by reputable backers to plug a massive leak through which countless smart but poor high-school graduates are cascading at the very time policymakers are trying to increase the proportion of the U.S. 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—and trying to steer them into institutions where their backgrounds suggest they’re 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 Admissions Officers.

Many, Reilly said, have parents who didn’t go to college either. 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 to only six out of 10 whose families are among the poorest, according to the Century Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank. At the nation’s 146 most selective colleges, the foundation reports, 74 percent of students come from the top income quartile, and only 3 percent from the bottom, meaning that the wealthy are 25 times more likely than the poor to attend these schools.

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 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 of the University of Virginia, mailed similar packages to 40,000 students whose SAT scores and high-school grades suggested they were smart, but who lived in neighborhoods the census showed were poor. 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 were 40 percent more likely to apply to colleges that matched their academic qualifications, Hoxby and Turner found.

“The approach is less persuading them of something than providing them with information,” said Veronica Conforme, a College Board vice president overseeing the initiative, which is reaching out to 20,000 rising seniors this summer at a cost of $8 per student. “These are accomplished kids, and once you put the information in front of them, they will act on that information.”

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

Other, 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, previously called the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, assigns advisors to work with the highest-achieving students, and has so far increased the likelihood that they’ll apply to college.

This more labor-intensive approach costs not $8 a student but $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, or WICHE, which tracks this, 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, fewer are affluent or white and increasing numbers are ethnic minorities and the children of immigrants. By 2020, WICHE 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 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.”

He said, “It’s hugely encouraging to me that you’ve got colleges signing up for this. But I would wait to celebrate until we know whether these students are getting admitted in large numbers, and that the universities are providing adequate financial aid to ensure that they’re actually able to enroll.”

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