January 12, 2015 / 8:43 PM / 4 years ago

COLUMN-Increase economic mobility by busting college myths

(The author is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

By Liz Weston

LOS ANGELES, Jan 12 (Reuters) - One way to improve economic mobility in the United States may be to fix the misconceptions that high-achieving, low-income teenagers often have about college.

Two years ago, a study found that the vast majority of such students don’t apply to competitive colleges. Now, the same researchers have discovered that providing better information to such students can dramatically increase their enrollment rates at more-elite schools.

Economics professors Caroline Hoxby of Stanford University and Sarah Turner of University of Virginia surveyed students, asking why they opted not to apply to certain institutions, such as selective liberal arts schools.

Responses showed many students did not know what a liberal arts college was. Some mistakenly believed such schools only accepted students with liberal politics, or only taught art and did not offer majors in mathematics.

These misunderstandings would be funny, except that they could ultimately worsen the problem of poor social mobility in the United States, which several studies in recent years have concluded is lower than in most other developed countries.

Hoxby and Turner have been studying the phenomenon of “undermatching,” when high school seniors who qualify for admission at selective schools instead choose less-selective colleges, two-year schools or no college at all. They recently presented their working paper to the American Economic Association, according to college news site Inside Higher Ed.

The pair cite previous research showing low-income students are far more likely to undermatch than more-affluent peers and that for a variety of reasons, undermatched students are less likely to obtain a college degree, hurting their chances of moving ahead economically.

Hoxby and Turner used a national sample of 18,000 high school seniors who scored in the top 10 percent on the SAT or ACT, had family incomes in the bottom third for high school seniors and were not enrolled at magnet or “feeder” schools designed to send more students to top colleges.

INFORMATION DEFICITS

The researchers designed an intervention for two-thirds of the seniors whose families may not understand how to evaluate the true cost or quality of a college. For instance, Hoxby and Turner believed families of many such students may not realize that elite schools often offer generous financial aid packages that allow low-income families to pay less than they would at a less-selective college or university. Confusion about the definition of a liberal arts college could also play a role.

Unless these high achievers attend feeder schools, they may not have counselors who can make up for their families’ lack of experience with college, the researchers said.

The researchers provided students with customized material based on the students’ high schools, local colleges and likely net costs. The material cost about $6 per student and was partly funded by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The researchers also arranged fee waivers from selective colleges as an incentive to apply.

The previous Hoxby and Turner study found such interventions boosted chances that students would apply to more-selective schools, known as “peer institutions.” The latest study found the interventions also affected enrollment decisions.

Hoxby and Turner wrote that their intervention “caused students to enroll in colleges that were 46 percent more likely to be peer institutions, whose graduation rates were 15.1 percent higher, and whose instructional spending was 21.5 percent higher.”

Some critics have accused the researchers of elitism for assuming that selective institutions automatically provide a better outcome for low-income high achievers.

When you think about it, though, it's hard to argue that kids who could get into Harvard would be better off at community colleges, or not going to college at all. (Follow us @ReutersMoney or here Editing by Lauren Young and David Gregorio)

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