Hoxby and Avery define the group of interest here as students from families with annual income less than $41,472 (the bottom quarter of households), SAT scores in the top 10% of the distribution of those taking the test (which is about 40% of high school graduates), and high school grade point average of A- or higher. They have data from the SAT folks on where students apply, based on where they have their SAT scores sent. If the student's test score is close to the median SAT score of those attending, they call it a "match." Students might also "reach" for a school where the median SAT score is above their own, or look for a "safety school" where the median test score is below their own. But the striking result is that so many high-achieving students from low-income families tend to apply to non-selective schools.
The top figure shows application patterns for high-achieving students from high-income (top quarter of income distribution) families, while the figure beneath it shows application patterns for high-achieving students from low-income families.
Hoxby and Avery write: "[W]e show that a large number--probably the vast majority--of very high-achieving students from low-income families do not apply to a selective college or university. This is in contrast to students with the same test scores and grades who come from high-income backgrounds: they are overwhelmingly likely to apply to a college whose median student has achievement much like their own. This gap is puzzling because the subset of high-achieving, low-income students who do apply to selective institutions are just as likely to enroll and progress toward a degree at the same pace as high-income students with equivalent test scores and grades. Added to the puzzle is the fact that very selective institutions not only offer students much richer instructional, extracurricular, and other resources, they also offer high-achieving, low-income students so much financial aid that the students would often pay less to attend a selective institution than the far less selective or non-selective post-secondary institutions that most of them do attend."
To illustrate this point about affordability, Hoxby and Avery calculate the cost with financial aide for a student with a family at the 20th percentile of the income distribution to attend various more-selective and less-selective schools.
So it isn't not a matter of out-of-pocket cost, what makes a high-achieving student from a low-income family more likely to attend a selective college? Although the answer to this question is still being sorted out, Hoxby and Avery offer some descriptive evidence that the answer lies in the networks between high schools and colleges. Most of the high-achieving, low-income students who apply to selective schools live in urban areas, where a number of such college are nearby. They are also more likely to have attended magnet high schools where a relatively larger "critical mass" of other students are also looking at selective colleges.
Almost all selective colleges do reach out to high-achieving low-income students, but these outreach efforts tend to focus on particular schools in their own geographic area. Hoxby and Avery write: "In
fact, we know from colleges' own published materials and communications with the authors that many colleges already make great efforts to seek out low-income students from their area. These
strategies, while no doubt successful in their way, fall somewhat under the heading of "searching
under the lamp-post." That is, many colleges look for low-income students where the college is instead of looking for low-income students where the students are." But how colleges can reach out to high-achieving, low-income students at other places, in a targeted way that doesn't involve having their efforts get lost in the snowstorm of college brochures, is a difficult question.