A big new study from Caroline M. Hoxby and Christopher Avery finds that high-achieving kids from poorer families are much less likely to apply to top colleges, even even though they would have a very good shot at getting in and qualifying for financial aid.
And here's the stunning part: For many of those low-income students, the top colleges would actually be cheaper than the schools they do end up going to — again, because of financial aid. So these students are paying more to go to less-selective schools.
David Leonhardt already did an excellent column on this research, but the authors offered up this graph during their presentation at Brookings that really sums up the findings nicely (click to enlarge):
Short version: Low-income and high-income students of comparable achievement have very different strategies when applying to college. Why is that? In their paper, the authors note that smart students from low-income families often don't think about applying to "reach" schools because they're less likely to be surrounded by people who have gone to these schools and less likely to have guidance counselors who are prepared to give good advice about selective colleges.
And, on the flip side, many selective colleges usually only seek out high-achieving low-income applicants in the biggest urban schools — which means they still miss a huge swath of bright students who could conceivably do well.
Matt Yglesias offers up some comments on possible remedies, as does Reihan Salam. It's also worth wondering about possible technological fixes. A few years ago in the Washington Monthly, Kevin Carey wrote a great piece about the promise of online college-search programs that could improve the whole matching process by lining up students with the schools they're best-suited for.
"This won’t just help the brightest, most driven kids," Carey writes. "Bad matching is a problem throughout higher education, from top to bottom."