Students Of Color Don't Apply To Top Schools, But They Should

Deadlines to apply for colleges are coming up - and some experts say a lot of qualified minority students won't be applying to the top schools. Host Michel Martin speaks with Donald Fraser, Jr., of CollegeSnapps, Inc. and Caroline Hoxby, an economist at Stanford University about why some students of color aren't trying to get into prestigious schools.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later this hour, we'll meet the R&B singer Maysa. She might be a new name to the list of Grammy nominees, but that honor comes after more than 20 years in the trenches of the music business. We'll talk with her about how she stuck it out all these years as well as her latest album "Blue Velvet Soul." That's later. But first, we continue our focus on education, something we talk about different times of the year.

And January is a time of great hope and anxiety for high school seniors who hope to go to college because this is the month when the majority of college applications are due. Now there's been a lot of talk in recent years about the value of diversity in the college population, but our next guest says those efforts are hampered, not because qualified students from diverse backgrounds are not available, but because of startling number of qualified students don't even apply. Stanford University economics professor Caroline Hoxby has studied this issue, and she's with us now from the studios at the campus. Professor Hoxby, thanks so much for joining us.

CAROLINE HOXBY: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: And for additional perspective, we've called Don Fraser, Jr. He's the founder and director of CollegeSnapps. That's an organization that tries to introduce students of limited means to a wider selection of college choices. He's here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome to you. Thank you so much for joining us.

DON FRASER JR.: That you very much, Michel. Good to be here.

MARTIN: So let me start with you, Professor Hoxby. I think a lot of people believe that the reason that there's limited diversity on the campuses of selective institutions is because there just isn't a large pool of qualified students from diverse backgrounds. But you've co-authored a study - and I'm quoting from the abstract that says, that we show that the vast majority of very high achieving students who are low income do not apply to any selective college or university. And this despite the fact that selective institutions would often cost them less. So why is that?

HOXBY: Well, that's really what we tried to explore in this study. And the first answer that almost everyone gives is the one that you just mentioned - everyone thinks, well, they're not applying because even if they applied and got in, they couldn't afford to go. And that's not true for low-income students who are high achieving. Ironically, these students are often paying more to go to a nonselective four-year college or even a community college than they would pay to go to the most selective, most resource rich institutions in the United States.

Places that everyone has heard of - University of Chicago, Harvard Stanford, Northwestern, Vanderbilt and so on. For those that - these very high achieving students, those places are essentially free or extremely low-cost. So cost is not the reason. We also found that the reason was not that the institutions were making little effort to recruit them. The institutions are making enormous effort to recruit them. But the institutions are having trouble finding the students because most of the low-income high achievers in the United States are actually quite dispersed. That means they're one of the only really high achievers in their high school. I want to say that that does not mean that they're rural. They're not rural. Most of them are urban.

But they're not going to selective exam schools in huge urban areas - Stuyvesant would be an example in New York City, Thomas Jefferson is an example in Northern Virginia. They're not going to those schools. So they're not that easy for the colleges to find. Instead, they're just going to, you know, school X in Toledo, Ohio or something like that. And the colleges don't have a way to know that that low-income student who's very high achieving is there in that high school. It's just not easy to pick them out.

MARTIN: Let me just hear from Don Fraser here because you have a background in college advising. I mean, that's kind of how you came to the work that you do now.

FRASER: That's right. That's right.

MARTIN: Does this kind of resonate with you?

FRASER: Oh, absolutely. That's what we used to see all the time. And working with students, as Dr. Hoxby mentions here, they are very difficult to find. Colleges have a very difficult time tracking down these students. And for the students themselves, they're not aware of these colleges. Even if there are schools right in their backyard, they're often not aware of the difference between a fill-in-the-blank college that does a lousy job of graduating students and the school two miles down the road that does a tremendous job of graduating students. They don't understand the difference and thus don't see the value of applying to a more rigorous school.

MARTIN: Professor Hoxby, obviously you spent a lot of time focusing us in thinking about this so please don't be offended by the question, but the question is why does it matter because some might argue - does it really matter? If these students are high achieving, They're going to find their way. I mean, they're going to be OK as long as they go somewhere. Does it matter that these students find their way to very selective colleges and universities?

HOXBY: Well, that's a good point. Very high achieving students rarely end up with bad outcomes. In other words, we don't see that they're going off to prison. They don't tend to end up being unemployed for the rest of their lives or anything like that. On the other hand, it is the difference between their achieving lower middle incomes and their essentially making it into and above the middle class.

So the earnings difference for a low-income student who attends a nonselective college or university - and that's where most of them are going these days - versus going to one of the most selective colleges in the United States where all of these students can get in given their scores, is a huge earnings difference over their lifetime. It's an earnings difference at a minimum of about 20 percent every year. And that's really a very big underestimate. It's much more than that so I'm not overestimating the earnings advantage. I'm really underestimating it for you.

MARTIN: So - and when we talk about the, you know, the most selective colleges and universities, what are we talking about? Are we only really talking about the Ivies or is there a broader pool than that?

HOXBY: It's about 240 colleges and universities in the United States. And they are the sorts of colleges and universities where high achieving students would find other high achievers as their classmates. So that's really how we define it, is where are the institutions that the student could attend where he or she would find himself among other students who are similar in terms of their incoming preparation? That's how we define selective colleges and universities.

MARTIN: And this is another sticky question, but it does have to be asked - is it your view that these students - they're high achieving in their context, but are they well-prepared enough to succeed at these colleges and universities if they were to be admitted?

HOXBY: Oh, that's not an awkward question, Michel. That's a really good question. In fact, what we do in this study is we follow every single high school student in the graduating class of 2008, and we get to see how well they do when they go to college. So the low-income high achievers who do go to selective colleges and universities, not only do they do well there, they do just as well as the high-income students with the same incoming test scores and grades.

So they thrive there just as much, and they have extremely high probabilities of graduating on time - well over 90 percent. Whereas, low-income students with the same high level of achievement who attend nonselective colleges have below a 50 percent probability of graduating on time. So...

MARTIN: Why would that be? You're saying that these students actually do better in the most selective colleges and universities. Why would that be?

HOXBY: Well, we don't know all of the reasons, but it's a package of things. At a more selective college, there are a lot more resources. You have better advising, no classes are so full that you just can't take the class that you need to take. There's much better financial aid so you're probably less likely to be working part time to try and support yourself. And you're in an environment where everyone else is progressing on time, going to class, showing up full-time and graduating on time. So it's probably an easier environment in which to stay on track yourself.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about ways to attract and keep promising students from diverse backgrounds - people of minority backgrounds, low-income students - to the most selective colleges and universities. Our guests are Stanford University professor Caroline Hoxby, who studied this issue, and college outreach counselor Don Fraser. Don Fraser, you used to be the director of education and training at the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

I just want to hear a bit more about what you saw in that role. Is it that a lot of these students who were academically strong just couldn't picture themselves at these colleges and universities? Or is it that people - their advisers didn't advise them, didn't think of it? What were some of the things that kept them from applying?

FRASER: Just as Dr. Hoxby mentioned, it's a constellation of reasons. Sometimes it's advising, it's lack of exposure to institutions. So for the same reasons that students don't take - a lot of the students we're talking about here - don't take honors and AP courses - their peers aren't in those courses, therefore they don't want to attend, they don't want to go into those classes because they'll be that one student there. They can't picture themselves there. And that's challenging.

MARTIN: What does your app do that - you've developed it to try to address this issue.

FRASER: Sure.

MARTIN: You're trying to address this with technology that's become very accessible...

FRASER: That's right.

MARTIN: ...Which are mobile devices...

FRASER: That's right.

MARTIN: ...Which, interestingly enough, minorities are kind of over indexed in acquiring and using. So what are...

FRASER: Yeah, absolutely.

MARTIN: ...You doing to try to address this?

FRASER: And that really was born of my work when I was in schools, which I was already - I was texting my students to say, where are you? We've got this trip to Boston College, you know, the bus is leaving. And they'd respond immediately. So I said, I have to do something on these devices here 'cause students are tethered to them. And what we know is that many college counselors and high school counselors just don't have the bandwidth to get information - high-quality information to all their students.

So you have this problem where the family doesn't know. They're not getting critical information from the school. So you have this, you know, confluence of issues that are happening and here's the student not getting information that they need and saying you could go to these competitive colleges over here.

MARTIN: Professor Hoxby, you know, I keep going back to kind of the basics of your study, but one of the reasons that I'm doing that is that it contradicts so much of the conversation that we have been having in recent years about diversity on college campuses.

I mean, the general, I think, perception that many people have is that the reason that these campuses are not more diverse - and that a number of campuses have actually experienced an erosion of minority and diverse students in recent years, right - is that these students just - they don't exist or they're not well prepared enough to compete effectively on these campuses or to sustain themselves on these campuses. And your research really contradicts that. Your findings don't seem to resonate in the conversations that we are now having around these issues. Does that make sense?

HOXBY: It does, but I think - let's take a step back. First of all, when many people think about diversity, they're thinking exclusively of racial and ethnic diversity. And they're not necessarily thinking about economic diversity, income diversity, the sort of advantages that students come from in terms of their neighborhoods and their family income and the schools that they attend. Economic diversity is a much broader set of people than just students who are black and Hispanic, Native American and other underrepresented minorities in college. In fact, the majority of poor people in the United States are white at any given time.

So we need to stop having an alignment in our minds that says everyone who's poor is black and Hispanic and everyone who's white is not, or something like that because that's just not true. When we did our study, what we did is we looked at people who were in the bottom quarter of the family income distribution. So those are the poorest quarter of people in the United States. And of course, blacks and Hispanics and Native Americans are overrepresented in that low-income group, but they do not make up the majority of people in the low-income group. Therefore, if colleges want to add economic diversity to their campuses, what they need to do is not just be recruiting students who are underrepresented minorities, although of course that helps because as I said, they are overrepresented in that pool, but they also need to be able to recruit low-income students from every high school in the United States.

And low-income students are quite spread out. They don't all live in the center city of one of the biggest urban areas in the United States. One of the things that we found in the study was that the colleges were tapping into the same high schools again and again and again. So for instance, if you were a low-income student who was a very high achiever and you lived in Harlem, your probability of not ending up at a selective college or university was essentially zero. OK, you were going to end up at one as long as you were a high achiever from Harlem because the colleges have figured out how to find those students and recruit those students. Same type of student, same high achievement, but you live in Bridgeport, Connecticut - not very far away - your probability of ending up in a selective college or university is much, much lower, dramatically lower.

And that's because, unlike the New York City schools where that high achiever would probably end up at one of the well-known exam schools in New York City, the student in Bridgeport, Connecticut is not going to end up in some sort of special high school. That student is just going to be someplace. And that's the sort of student who doesn't end up getting the advice or the information about the differences between colleges and doesn't end up applying to a selective college or university. And there are a lot more of the Bridgeport-type students out there than there are of the students in Harlem.

MARTIN: Don Fraser, as we pointed out - I'm going to give you the last word here - a lot of applications are coming due now. In fact, we already kind of missed the deadline for a number of institutions...

FRASER: The competitive colleges.

MARTIN: For the competitive sort of...

FRASER: Right.

MARTIN: ...Colleges. But for people who are just to think about this or for parents of students who are hearing this - for students who are hearing this conversation who are strong students, what's the most important advice you would give to a promising student who is thinking about this issue now?

FRASER: Sure.

MARTIN: What would it be, expand your horizons?

FRASER: Sure, sure. Well, one of the things that we're also talking about - not really talking about here, which is a challenge for a lot of the students - what we're discussing is that actually submitting an application isn't an easy process. So completing all the steps that you need to do in order to actually apply to a competitive college, even if you know that you can get into that college or you're - you know, you've been given all the resources, and now you have to - but you have all these different pieces of the puzzle that need to be completed. I have to get my letters of recommendation. I have to get my essay done. I have to do a resume. I have to - you know, there's many moving parts.

And a lot of the students do get tripped up here. And that's what we're trying to solve here by connecting the dots on our end, which is prompting students through our mobile app to make sure that you're not missing these steps. You know exactly when you need to do things. You're not going to - you know, you're not going to forget that you need to do this. And that's part of what we're doing. And we can't forget that this is a complex process. I saw that working with students, how labor-intensive it is to actually get students through a single application.

MARTIN: Especially if they don't have somebody to hold their hand...

FRASER: That's right. That's right.

MARTIN: ...Who have been through it before.

FRASER: And even if you're at one of these charter schools or a competitive high school, you know, there's often - maybe one person who's pushing you along the way. And then you have too many negative influences that are saying, why are you doing that? You know, let's go hang out. Let's go do something else. Don't do your applications now. So there's a - we have to battle this constantly. So for any students right now who are still out there and thinking about trying to figure out how - what should I be doing? I know I want to apply to college. Well, talk to somebody who you trust, who is in your corner, who can sit down with you and figure it out.

You know, there's been an emergence of community-based organizations that are playing a vital role for students. College access programs in your backyard where you can get free services. So students who are struggling, they should be looking into their community, in their school to find those people who can be champions for them to help them through this process. And what we're doing is we're working with a lot of these community-based organizations. We're working with different high schools to make sure that we can connect the dots. We can make it easier on the counselors, we can make it easier on the students through mobile technology.

MARTIN: Don Fraser, Jr. is the founder of the organization CollegeSnapps. That's S-N-A-P-P-S. He was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Caroline Hoxby is a professor of economics at Stanford University, and she was kind enough to join us from the studios there. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

HOXBY: Thanks, Michel.

FRASER: Thank you, Michel.

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