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From: Brookings Papers on Economic Activity
Spring 2013
pp. 51-65 | 10.1353/eca.2013.0010

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Comment by Amanda Pallais

This paper by Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery provides a comprehensive analysis of the differences in college application patterns between high-achieving students of differing family incomes. It finds that high-achieving, low-income students apply to substantially different sets of colleges than do their higher-income peers. Over half of the low-income group send SAT or ACT test scores to at least one nonselective college and do not send scores to any college with a median test score within 15 percentiles of their own score. Only 8 percent send scores to a portfolio containing at least one "match" college, one "safety" college, and no nonselective college.

This paper is not the first to note that low-income students apply to different sets of colleges than high-income students (see, for example, Spies 2001, Bowen and others 2005, and Pallais and Turner 2006). However, it is distinguished by its comprehensiveness and the sheer amount of data that allow the authors to fully characterize the application choices of high-achieving students. The paper starts with data on everyone in the high school class of 2008 who took either the ACT or the SAT I. Then it links these students to the colleges they sent scores to, to data on their high schools, and to data on their census block and zip code, as well as to information on whether and where they ultimately enrolled in college and whether they had completed a 4-year degree by 2012.

After showing the differences in application patterns between high-and low-income high achievers, the paper considers the characteristics both of those low-income students whose application behavior is similar to high-income students' (what the authors call "achievement-typical" students) and of those who do not apply to selective institutions ("income-typical" students). Achievement-typical students are more likely to come from schools and neighborhoods where they could more easily obtain information about colleges (for example, because they are more likely to have teachers who attended selective colleges and friends from earlier cohorts who applied to selective colleges). The paper suggests that many low-income, high-achieving students would actually benefit from attending selective colleges but do not apply, because unlike high-income students, they do not have specific relevant information (for example, about the range of colleges available, colleges' true costs, or the relevant benefits of attending specific colleges).

A closely related explanation for low-income high achievers' distinct application choices is that applying to college or for financial aid is prohibitively difficult for some. For example, they may be less likely to have parents or guidance counselors who can assist them with the application process. This explanation also implies that low-income high-achievers might benefit from attending selective colleges but are failing to apply. However, if the applications themselves are preventing these students from attending selective colleges, simply providing more information without also assisting them in filling out the applications (or simplifying the application process) will not be effective. In the rest of this comment, I summarize some of the existing literature on these two explanations as they relate to low-income students in general, not just high-achievers. This relatively new literature provides many examples in which giving high school students information about colleges or assistance with completing applications affects whether and where students attend college.

A recent paper by Hoxby and Sarah Turner (2013) presents the results of a randomized experiment with several different treatments. In one treatment, they sent high-achieving, low-income students information on colleges' actual net cost. They found that this induced students to apply to more colleges and raised the likelihood both of their applying to a selective college and of their being admitted. (The point estimate also implies that this intervention increased the probability that students attended a selective college, but it is not statistically significant.) Another randomized treatment sent students information about suggested application strategies, college graduation rates, and application deadlines. Additionally, it sent students a copy of the Common Application (a standardized application used by many colleges), perhaps making it easier to apply. This treatment also induced students to send more applications and led to...

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