Basic Marketing May Be To Blame For Fewer Low-Income Students At Top Universities

Audie Cornish talks to Caroline Hoxby, an economics professor at Stanford University, about her study on expanding college opportunities for low-income students. They discuss how providing low-income applicants with more information about selective college can improve application and acceptance rates.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Why do high-achieving, low-income students not apply to top colleges and universities as often as high-achieving, high-income students? That's the question Stanford University economics professor Caroline Hoxby set out to answer in a recent study. She and her colleagues created a special packet - a tool kit - for some 40,000 low-income kids. The tool kit made clear what perhaps their parents or guidance counselors hadn't; that they can get into good schools - some nearby, others across the country - and that in many cases, the more the selective the school, the cheaper it would be for them to attend.

I spoke with Hoxby earlier today, and she said one key to reaching these students was dispelling some myths about why many don't apply to highly selective schools.

CAROLINE HOXBY: People often say that the reason why low-income students just attend whatever college is closest to them is that they want to live at home or that they're afraid to leave their neighborhood, or something like that. We really did not see evidence of that - and we have surveyed the students so we know what they, themselves, say.

In fact, what we saw was that a lot of low-income, high-achieving students really wanted to go to the best college or university available to them, but they didn't understand the net costs of very selective colleges and universities. They thought they were beyond their reach. And they didn't understand all of the differences among colleges.

CORNISH: So you came up with these intervention kits, which - I guess it was your way of giving the students this missing information. What was in the kit? How did it work?

HOXBY: Well, the kits are very unique. Unlike your typical college brochure, for instance, they are customized. We built a vast database behind these kits so that every student could receive information that was specifically relevant to him or her. So imagine a student who's living in eastern Oklahoma. He or she would have received specific information about eastern Oklahoma colleges and universities - about Oklahoma State, about the University of Oklahoma, about the more selective private universities in Oklahoma.

And then, all of that would have been put in the context of a national range of colleges and universities; and he would have been easily able to compare their graduation rates, their net costs, their curriculum. We really wanted it to be customized and yet we wanted students to be able to make this kind of comparison that would be very helpful for their college-making decisions.

CORNISH: So how did students, in effect, react to the kits? How did this change the way they went about the application process?

HOXBY: Well, they really did change their application and enrollment behavior. For instance, they were 53 percent more likely to apply to a peer college or university - whereby peer, we mean a place where most of the other students have the same level of incoming preparation as these low-income, high-achieving students. And they were 78 percent more likely to be admitted to a peer institution, and about 50 percent more likely to enroll in one. So that's one way of looking at the results. Another way of thinking about it is that the students who got the intervention were more likely to enroll in institutions with high graduation rates and higher instructional resources, 34 percent higher instructional resources.

And another interesting thing is that once we saw these low-income, high-achieving students enroll in more selective colleges and universities, we weren't sure how well they would do. Well, what we found was that they were doing just as well, in terms of their grades and staying in college and staying on track to a degree, as students who enrolled in much less selective colleges in the United States.

CORNISH: Are students' fears about the costs related to these schools founded or unfounded? I mean, it - this seems like a very kind of valid concern that any hardworking kid would have about the burden of college expense on their families.

HOXBY: That's right. If a low-income family looks at the so-called sticker price of a selective college or university, I think the family is often intimidated. It - it's sometimes more than the entire family makes in a year. On the other hand, if you are a student who is a low-income student in the United States or even a lot of middle- to low-income students in the United States, you may pay none of that sticker price. A place like Princeton has a comprehensive cost that's quite high, but the cost for a low-income student is zero.

And the same thing is true of Stanford and Yale and Harvard and Brown University, and a whole bunch of others. We see low-income students today often paying more to go to a college that has one-tenth of the resources of the colleges that would be glad to admit him.

CORNISH: Caroline Hoxby, thank you so much for speaking with us.

HOXBY: It's been a pleasure, Audie. Thank you.

CORNISH: That's economics professor at Stanford University Caroline Hoxby. We spoke to her about her study about expanding college opportunities for low-income students.

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