In addition to teaching at several community colleges, I have taught at four state universities in two different states and one private, historically black college. At each four-year school, I always was puzzled that I had so many low-income, high-achieving black American students who would have been accepted at one of the Ivies and succeeded there.
Why were they settling for "second best"? I suspected that a lack of self-esteem had a lot to do with it, as an 18-year-old freshman from Bryan, Texas, confirmed one day in my office. He said he would have "felt out of place" and "over my head" on a selective campus. I told him that he was cheating himself out of the ultimate intellectual challenge. He agreed but remained at this nonselective university. I could not believe that a lack of self-esteem and a sense of wanting to belong told the whole story. There had to be more.
In a paper delivered recently at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association, held in San Francisco, Caroline Hoxby, a professor of economics at Stanford University, and Christopher Avery, a professor of public policy at Harvard University, presented a major reason as to why each year thousands of low-income, high-achieving minority students, especially blacks, choose to attend nonselective colleges and universities.
Using a huge collection of recent data from the College Board, Hoxby and Avery found that typically only about 40 percent of low-income, high-achieving students opt for selective schools. The main reason: The overwhelming majority of these students live in isolated areas, mostly small rural towns. This surprised me.
"Think of a high-achieving, low-income student in New York City," Hoxby told the Chronicle of Higher Education. "That student is going to get swept up into the magnet school system and attend high school at some place like Stuyvesant. That student will have a very high probability of attending a selective college. But most low-income students are not in places like that. A student might be in a small school district where teachers and counselors just don't have any experience in advising students about selective colleges. So these students are poorly informed about their college opportunities, and they have few allies."
The consequences of this problem are bad for everyone. "We know," Hoxby said, "that at a given level of high school achievement, a low-income student who attends a more selective college is more likely to graduate on time, more likely to be employed, more likely to have high earnings after graduation. I'm not saying that all of those relationships are causal. Even if they're partly causal, it seems worthwhile to get more of these students into selective colleges." A cruel irony, Hoxby said, is that these students often pay more to attend nonselective schools because, unlike their selective counterparts, these schools rarely offer the students individualized packages of loans, grants and work opportunities.
"Throughout America, there are millions of students excelling in school despite their families' lower income levels," Joshua Wyner wrote in a report titled Achievementrap: How America is Failing Millions of High-Achieving Students from Lower-income Families. "While they may encounter supportive teachers or challenging programs, these students' opportunities are often prescribed by the limited educational resources available in their local communities."
Wyner, Hoxby, Avery and others argue that educators, lawmakers and families must work in concert to establish a culture of educational inclusiveness, one that treats the low-income, high-achieving child the same as the high-income, high-achieving child. Children in small rural towns should receive the same kind of college-related counseling that their urban peers receive.
While individual students lose by not applying to selective schools, selective schools also lose by missing opportunities to create student populations made up of different economic and cultural backgrounds.
"Motivated, talented students can, of course, receive a high-quality education at a community college or a less selective university," Wyner said. "The unfortunate reality for high-achieving lower-income students, however, is that an important indicator of their future success in life — the likelihood of graduating from college — depends in substantial part on the selectivity of the school they attend."