The Missing "One-Offs": The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low-Income Students


We show that the vast majority of low-income high achievers do not apply to any selective college. This is despite the fact that selective institutions typically cost them less, owing to generous financial aid, than the two-year and nonselective four-year institutions to which they actually apply. Moreover, low-income high achievers have no reason to believe they will fail at selective institutions since those who do apply are admitted and graduate at high rates. We demonstrate that low-income high achievers' application behavior differs greatly from that of their high-income counterparts with similar achievement. The latter generally follow experts' advice to apply to several "peer," a few "reach," and a couple of "safety" colleges. We separate low-income high achievers into those whose application behavior is similar to that of their high-income counterparts ("achievement-typical") and those who apply to no selective institutions ("income-typical"). We show that income-typical students are not more disadvantaged than the achievement-typical students. However, in contrast to the achievement-typical students, income-typical students come from districts too small to support selective public high schools, are not in a critical mass of fellow high achievers, and are unlikely to encounter a teacher who attended a selective college. We demonstrate that widely used policies—college admissions recruiting, campus visits, college mentoring programs—are likely to be ineffective with income-typical students. We suggest that effective policies must depend less on geographic concentration of high achievers.