Sometimes, late at night, you stare out your window at the black Nebraska sky and wonder if you really are a freak like everyone at school says. It’s not just the pile of Jane Austens under your bed that you’ve read till the pages are ragged or the A’s you’ve racked up in everything from chemistry to AP history. It’s your stubborn belief that there’s more out there than homecoming, keggers and road trips to the mall 80 miles away in Lincoln. Your mom is sympathetic but between cleaning floors at the nursing home and taking care of your little brothers, she has even less time than she has money. Your dad? Last you heard, he was driving a forklift at a Hy-Vee in Kansas City.
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You scored 2150 on your SATs, highest anyone around here remembers, so it will be easy to get into the state school a couple of towns away. But maybe you’ll go to the community college close by so you can save a little money and help your mom out—and it would save having to take out loans to pay for tuition. Pretty much everyone winds up dropping out eventually anyway. By the time you’re 19 or 20, it’s time to start bringing home a paycheck, earn your keep.
Then, on a balmy afternoon, you come home from school, toss your backpack on the kitchen table, and see that a thick packet has come in the mail. You don’t know it yet, but what’s inside will change your life.
You open the envelope and find a personalized letter from the College Board, the SAT people. It says that, because your grades and scores are in the top 10 percent of test takers in the nation, there are colleges asking you to apply. Princeton, Harvard, Emory, Smith—there’s a long list, places you’ve read about in books. And here’s an even more shocking page: It says the College Board somehow knows your mom can’t afford to pay for your schooling so it will be free. There’s even a chart comparing costs to these schools and your community college and the state campus, breaking them down in black and white—it turns out your mom would have to pay more to send you to the community college than to Princeton or Harvard. To top it all off, clipped to the packet are eight no-cost vouchers to cover your application fees!
You sit at the table, stunned. Could this be true? No one you’ve ever known has even gone to a top-tier college. Blood rushes to your head and you feel a little faint as the thought takes over your brain: You could do this. You could really do this. You could be the first.
“The amount of untapped talent out there is staggering,” says Caroline Hoxby, the woman who created that magic packet, as she sits in her office on the Stanford campus, a thousand miles away, in every way, from that small Nebraska town. (The privacy of participants is fiercely protected, so the girl and the town are composites.) Dressed in her usual uniform, a sleek suit jacket and slacks, with her hair pulled back tightly and small earrings dangling, she radiates intensity. A Harvard grad, she's married to Blair Hoxby, an English professor at Stanford.
The information packet, which grew out of two landmark studies she published in the last year, is the crowning achievement of her two decades as the country’s leading educational economist. This September, her idea was rolled out nationally by the College Board, the group that administers the SAT. Now, every qualified student in the nation receives that packet. In a world where poverty and inequality seem intractable, this may be one problem on the way to being solved.
“It can take a generation to make a fundamental change like this,” says William Fitzsimmons, director of admissions at Harvard. “What Caroline has done will leapfrog us ahead.”