Data tells us:

53 percent do not apply to a single college that matches their grades and test scores
Only 16 percent enroll in a highly selective four-year college
24 percent enroll in a two-year or less-than-two-year institution
22 percent (more than 13,000 a year) do not enroll in college

High-performing, low-income students who “match” to a selective college graduate at the same rate as their high-income peers.

Key Factors:

Identity & Isolation

High-achieving, low-income high school students can easily become isolated, caught between being themselves and belonging easily and naturally with family, friends and community. In the absence of role models, or positive reinforcement, a lot is asked of these students to persist and hold onto their gifts and sense of possibility.

Poor Preparation

Faced with lifting large numbers of students to proficiency, many high school teachers and counselors leave high achievers to fend for themselves. These students need guidance from freshman year forward, to steer them toward Advanced Placement (AP) coursework and extracurricular experiences, and to navigate college selection.

College Matching

Without knowledge of the complex tuition/aid calculus, students from low-income backgrounds often assume they cannot afford college, especially selective colleges. To complicate matters, selective colleges do a poor job of seeking out such students, especially when they live in remote areas. As a result, very few match their grades/test scores to right-fit colleges — and far too many never apply to any college.

Poor Transfer Support

Four-year colleges have done a poor job of transitioning high-achieving students who attend community college toward degree completion. Poor transfer support, arbitrary admissions limits, inequitable financial aid all mean that many high-achieving, low-income students stall at community college.

What works:

Make Cost Clear

Research shows that if you demystify the tuition/aid equation, low-income high achievers will apply to more selective schools — and succeed.

Connect Students

Through efforts like the Jack Kent Cook Foundation’s College Scholarship Program, high-achieving, low-income students find encouragement and make friends with students of similar ability and aspirations.

More Economic Diversity

While many selective colleges and universities have made strides in terms of ethnic diversity, large disparities remain in terms of economic diversity, especially when compared with endowments. Schools must broaden their searches beyond a cluster of nearby low-income areas and identify the best performers far and wide.

Cooperation Between Two- and Four-Year Institutions

Given the success of high-achieving, low-income students at selective colleges, two- and four-year institutions should work together to foster a transfer-friendly environment.

Low-Hanging Opportunity:
Fix College Undermatching

Research from Caroline Hoxby of Stanford’s economics department and Christopher Avery from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government explains the issue of college undermatching — which describes how 10,000 or 20,000 of America’s brightest, low-income high-school graduates each year don’t go to a great college not because they can’t afford one but because they don’t realize they should apply.

The data shows that among low-income high school students who perform well on the SAT, only a fraction (8 percent) make good use of their scores by applying to selective colleges. The promising news is that those same students make good on their bet — enrolling in and graduating from selective colleges at the same rate as their high-income peers.

Many people in education want more of this outcome — for low-income kids to defy the odds and succeed at the highest level. What then could be done to help the vast number of low-income high school students who perform well on the SAT (92 percent), but take a path that proves to be far more uncertain.

First, the sobering statistics:

  • More than half — 53 percent of low-income, high-achieving SAT takers — apply to zero schools whose median SAT or ACT scores are similar to their own.
  • Many smart, low-income students apply only to a single unselective school.

Role Models + Geography

A familiar saying about upward mobility in America goes, “you can’t be one unless you see one.”

High-performing, low-income students from larger metro areas appear more likely to see themselves at a selective college, in part because they’re more likely to meet and get to know a teacher who attended a selective college.

This first-person story from an Ivy-league graduate born to a single mom on the South Side of Chicago confirms the data.

In contrast, high-performing, low-income students from smaller school districts and rural areas set lower expectations about where they belong in college.

Colleges tend to look in their own backyard for high-performing, low-income students, which means a triple penalty if you’re born into a poor family, denied a mentor/role model, and living a remote area of the U.S., far from a selective college.

The College Advising Corps trains and deploys 470 peer advisers who help more than 150,000 high-achieving, low-income students apply to schools that match their abilities and thus improve their likelihood of completing college.

Continued financial support from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation will enable the program to expand the range of schools they consider and provide critical, direct information in the college admissions and financial aid processes. In its first year, the program will aim to identify and serve a nationwide cohort of 8,000-10,000 high-achieving, low-income students.

Explore the Excellence Gap by Ages/Stages