How Do You Get Poor Kids to Apply to Great Colleges?

Caroline Hoxby and her team of researchers are revolutionizing the way the best colleges reach out to talented low-income students

(Photo illustration by Brian Smale)
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Hoxby realized it wasn’t practical to expect colleges to try to locate these kids. She had to find a way to motivate the students themselves to take action. Getting the usual “think about applying” form letter from, say, Haverford or Cornell, wasn’t doing the trick. Low-income students and their parents were dismissive of such prompts, seeing them as confusing and meaningless. While some students chose a local school because they didn’t want to leave home, others were deterred by the sticker price. With all the hoopla about rising college costs, they assumed that a fancy private education would be far out of their range. Just the cost of applying to schools—often $75 per shot—was often prohibitive.

While creating the packet, Hoxby and a second co-author, economist Sarah Turner of the University of Virginia, found that small tweaks made a huge difference. With the help of graphic designers, they fiddled with everything from the photos to the language, the fonts and the ink color. They also tested which family member should get the packet (parents, students or both). “There I was, discussing whether or not we should use 16-point type in a particular headline,” she recalls. “It’s not the usual thing for an economist to be doing.”

The packets are tailored for each student, with local options and net costs calculated and compared, apples to apples. It’s a process Hoxby likens to Amazon’s algorithms. “You know how when you log in you see things that are just for you? It looks very simple, but the back office is actually massively complicated. If everyone just saw the same thing, randomly, we’d never buy anything.”

In the end, students who got the packet during the two years of her study—2010 to 2012—started acting more like their affluent peers. They applied to many more colleges, and were accepted at rates as high as Hoxby estimated they would be. For $6 apiece, she likely changed the course of thousands of lives—as well as the future of the ivory tower.

“We will do anything we can to make sure that people who qualify for an education of this caliber can have one,” says Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan.

The Supreme Court has begun to weaken the case for race-based preferences, and Hoxby—whose father, Steven Minter, former under-secretary of education under Jimmy Carter, is black—often gets asked if her studies herald a new era of
class-based affirmative action. It’s a policy that would put poor rural kids, who are often white, on the same footing as inner-city students, who are almost always of color.

Such questions clearly annoy her. “What people need to understand is that this is not affirmative action. These kids are just as qualified as their privileged counterparts in terms of their grades and scores. They graduate those colleges at the same rate. No requirements are being bent. The issue is just finding them.”

Even so, Hoxby’s work has sparked discussions about economic affirmative action. Currently few if any schools give weight to applications from low-income students, though some do look at whether an applicant is the first in the family to go to college.

That may soon change, says Maria Laskaris, dean of admissions at Dartmouth. But giving greater preference to low-income applicants could spark blow-back from upper-middle-class families. “If we decide to take more of any sort of student, others don’t make it in. It’s challenging,” she says.

While schools such as Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth can provide full aid to more low-income students, schools with smaller endowments could find it hard to finance a new wave of need. In a recent letter to the New York Times, Catharine Hill, president of Vassar, applauded the College Board’s intentions but cautioned that the intervention that Hoxby engineered “will indeed create tensions surrounding financial aid” at the more than 150 top institutions that cannot afford to be need-blind.

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