A recent study by Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery hasn’t gotten a lot of media attention but is a must read. In fact, I just became aware of the study myself even though it was issued as a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research back in December. Policymakers, educators, parents, and the general public should be made aware of this study because it has broad implications for narrowing gaps between low and higher income students.
What did the study find that was so important? It found that low-income high achieving students were less likely to not just attend a selective college but even apply to one as similar achieving higher income students. Instead, low-income high achieving students tend to attend non-selective two- or four-year colleges that have significantly lower instructional resources and graduation rates.
Why is this so important? Too few low-income students go on to obtain a college degree. If more low-income students applied to more selective colleges that have greater instructional resources and higher graduations rates the college degree attainment gap between low- and high-income students would narrow. In the long-term the U.S. would likely climb up the international college graduation rate rankings as well.
You might be thinking low-income students may not attend more selective colleges because they cost more. This may be true if you compared sticker prices but the study found that if you take into account the difference in financial aid packages, many selective colleges would cost low-income students less than the non-selective colleges they wound up attending.
However, this isn’t likely to be common knowledge for many low –income students as many are the first in their families to attend college. This is why adults in their high schools need to help educate these students and their families about the college going process, particularly for those qualified to attend a selective college. Yet, when the national student to guidance counselor average is 350 to 1—likely much higher in many high poverty urban districts—it is nearly impossible for guidance counselors to find the time to ensure low-income high achieving students apply to selective schools.
This study provides more evidence of the importance of high school guidance counselors. As CPE found in our High School Rigor and Good Advice report last year, those students who meet regularly with counselors about college are more likely to succeed in college. The same report also found that those students who took more rigorous courses in high school were more likely to succeed in college as well. So, guidance counselors not only help low-income high achieving students by educating them about the college going process but by ensuring students take the rigorous courses they need to succeed in college.
Yes, getting more low-income students to complete a rigorous high school curriculum will increase the chances those students will attend and succeed in college. But this study shows that academic preparation can only go so far. If schools invest more in educating low-income students on the college going process by hiring more guidance counselors that will ensure students take rigorous courses and apply to higher quality colleges. Then the U.S. will likely see the college degree gap between low- and high-income students narrow and see the U.S. rise in the international college attainment rankings. – Jim Hull