Personal Drivers and Blind Spots in Study on Poor Smart Kids and College Choice

There has been a trickle of misinformed media reports about a recent study from Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery, and the latest (from the Atlantic, of course) brought my frustration above the level necessary for a blog post. Apologies in advance. I’ll try to make this a productive exercise in venting. This is also quite a personal issue for me on two levels.

First, I was a high achieving, low-income student. I went to DC Public Schools and then I chose Harvard College. As a brief qualifier, although my parents’ income qualified me for generous need-based financial aid, I was raised with amazing social capital. My house was filled with books, stacks of the NYRB, and parents who would take me to Shakespeare and urge me to apply to amazing science camps. So I was in no way typical of their sample, but I still think I have a better view of this population than they do.

Second, I now teach in one of the institutions that Hoxby, Anderson, and the journalists that write about this paper would call “less selective.” I work very hard for my students, including some who are high achieving and low income. And yes, I am defensive that my institution is somehow a clearly inferior choice for those of my students who are lower income. If you detect an edge in some of my words below it is because I have dulled them from my original angry bloodied spear point.

First, the Hoxby and Avery paper:

We show that the vast majority of very high-achieving students who are low-income do not apply to any selective college or university. This is despite the fact that selective institutions would often cost them less, owing to generous financial aid, than the resource-poor two-year and non-selective four-year institutions to which they actually apply. Moreover, high-achieving, low-income students who do apply to selective institutions are admitted and graduate at high rates. We demonstrate that these low-income students’ application behavior differs greatly from that of their high-income counterparts who have similar achievement.

I don’t find anything wrong on the face with studying how people of different classes make different college decisions. The upgoer of this article seems to be: when it comes time to chose a school after high school, poor smart kids act more like poor kids than smart kids. Ok, yeah, class matters. Not just for academic achievement, but for college choice. I am not surprised at this, and I don’t think they were either.

It is the next part, the popular interpretation of this paper that drives me crazy. Here Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson writing in an article titled “Why Some Top Colleges Miss Great Students”:

The real crisis in American higher education is that our best colleges never see a large chunk of our smartest students.

In an important recent study, the economists Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery found that very few high achievers from low-income families ever apply to top colleges, and that the missing applications from these kids largely explain why they’re underrepresented at our leading universities.

See how they quickly move from the “selective” to “top” and “leading” as descriptors of these colleges that poor smart kids are missing out on? So the real crisis in education is that Harvard can’t get another fifty Pell Grant kids to improve its income diversity? Apparently this real crisis is that high achieving poor smart kids from rural areas never even consider Harvard, and are far more likely to stay closer to home at regional 4 year college. Instead of going to the best, they come to me. They go to Historically Black Colleges and Universities or they go to community colleges. This is not a crisis.

I have met faculty at these places, and they work hard for their students, they know their students. The faculty member who knows all his students’ names, that they want to be a pharmacist when they grow up, and what a hard time they had when their father died two years ago might be a worthy mentor for that student to have. They might just be better for that student than the many world-renowned experts I encountered at Harvard who were blissfully unaware of my own awkward intellectual and emotional stumbling. Choosing a place where people like you find a supportive community is not a crisis.

Wolfers and Stevenson end with a few suggestions for remedying this “problem” with relatively small nudges, then close with:

It’s a startling fact that such small barriers could be a stumbling block to socioeconomic diversity on U.S. college campuses and to economic mobility.

The good news is that the talent is there. Now all we have to do is tap it.

So this is it. We have given up on the hope that our university system as a whole is an engine of economic mobility. We’ve given up on former U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan’s view of community colleges:

“I simply want to celebrate the fact that right near your home, year in and year out, a community college is quietly — and with very little financial encouragement — saving lives and minds. I can’t think of a more efficient, hopeful or egalitarian machine, except perhaps the bicycle.”

Do Wolfers and Stevenson realize that they are saying that smart kids going to community colleges are a crisis? Do they realize that they are saying that the poor rural smart kids who go to my school are merely a passive pool talent, sitting there untapped? I can only assume that plenty of tapping is going on at University of Michigan, where they teach. Although I would guess that they personally aren’t doing much:

 Being able to live near campus will, says Ms. Stevenson, free up time for teaching, writing, and public appearances. She and Mr. Wolfers will no longer need a driver. They hired one for their two hours of daily commuting between Philadelphia to Princeton, having calculated that that would optimize their output and contentment.

Derek Thompson, in the Atlantic, writes a similar column, calling it a “quiet crisis:”

There’s a quieter, more lower-case crisis that is potentially even more dangerous for the economy: Smart, low-income students who never consider applying to our best colleges — even though the education would both cost less and lead to higher-paying jobs.

He closes with

If both institutions [the media and selective colleges] looked harder for our education system’s quieter crisis — the promising students who don’t go to school or apply to non-selective colleges — it would make the entire country richer.

Yes. The whole country would be richer if only more poor kids went to Harvard.

I was reading these articles in the context of one of my typical January activities, interviewing scholarship candidates for my college. Whereas most bigger schools have alumni networks that do candidate interviews, Randolph-Macon brings merit scholarship candidates to campus for a visit, and each gets a brief interview with a faculty member on a Saturday afternoon, along with some typical tours and lectures. I end up talking with a lot of kids who would probably fall into Hoxby and Avery’s category of high achieving kids from poorer rural areas. One of the things that I ask them is why they chose to apply to Randolph-Macon. Most often they tell me that they like the small size (just like their hometown), the fact that it is close to their family. They tell me that they value the  personal attention they see in the sample classes they’ve attended and in the amazing job that the admissions office does in wishing them a happy birthday or personalizing every acceptance letter with details from the application.

Like all kids who apply to college they want a job when they get out, but they also want a good experience while they are in college. They want a school with the highest status that they can imagine, but one where they fit in. They feel that they won’t fit in at Harvard or Yale or Princeton. This is not an irrational decision made because they don’t have enough information. My freshman roommate was from a small coal mining town in Kentucky. He left Harvard after freshman year, not feeling like he fit in. He transferred to a school closer to home that fit better with his recent religious conversion.

And this to me is a big ignored point, and a common theme of this blog. Sometimes people make decisions because they have different values than you, not just because they are stupid and uninformed of the benefits of your way of thinking. This is a blind spot for Thompson (also from DC, I see, but went to Potomac School, then Northwestern, now lives in NYC as a senior editor for the Atlantic) and Wolfers (B.A. University of Sydney, Ph.D. Harvard, now at Michigan) and Stevenson (B.A. Wellesley, Ph.D. Harvard, now at Michigan).

Most people don’t just choose college based on getting a high paying job for the cheapest four-year cost. They want to have a learning and maturing experience with people like them. Is this so wrong? They want to stay close to home and their social support networks.  Is this merely a symptom of selective colleges failing to reach them with information about the benefits of an elite education? No. It is selective colleges failing to align with their values. And they might just be right. Some people would rather be close to their families than be at a more elite place. Oh, wait, Stevenson and Wolfers have made exactly this decision.

I don’t doubt the data that elite colleges often do offer better long-term salary prospects, especially for low-income students (in fact, higher income achievers likely already have high income social networks, and therefore do not benefit from elite schools). But when I ask the students I meet what they want out of college, they don’t say high salary. They don’t say Harvard Medical School. They say that they want the things they currently value: family, church and service to their community. This isn’t a crisis.

What is a crisis is that economists and business writers who don’t actually talk to these students denigrate their decision-making process as short-sighted and deficient. Then these writers imply that the economy would improve if this “untapped talent” made better choices, as if the lack of opportunity these students face when they exit college is their own fault for choosing the same places that the respected members of their community went and loved.

UPDATE: I have added a brief follow-up post adding a few wrinkles to this story.

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About Cedar Riener

College psychology professor, husband, father.
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13 Responses to Personal Drivers and Blind Spots in Study on Poor Smart Kids and College Choice

  1. AnnMaria says:

    Thank you for your wonderful, wonderful post. I am so SICK of the assumption that getting into one of the Ivy League schools is a measure of your worth as a person and determinant of success. I was also a high achieving low income student. I attended Washington University in St. Louis, then the U of MN for MBA then UC Riverside for MA & PhD. I have a great life. For several years I taught, including four years at a small, rural, liberal arts college, then founded the first of three companies. The education I received was a great experience for me. One of the reasons that I deliberately did not choose one of the “elite” schools is I didn’t think I would fit in with my clothes from Goodwill and my spring vacations spent working instead of in Fort Lauderdale.

    My children are what you might call high income high achievers and I did not particularly want Harvard for them. The idea that you need to sacrifice your entire childhood with Saturday school, Kumon, SAT prep and never any sports so you get perfect SATs to earn the golden ticket – admission to Harvard – frankly did not seem like a good deal.

    Maybe if those authors quit patting themselves on the back long enough to look around they would see that others have different values. Thank you again.

  2. My father in law is an American historian of some repute (my first ‘meeting’ with him was a television documentary – my partner, fresh from the US, pointed him out as one of the experts not a week after arriving in Australia). He publishes a textbook on Californian history, once had his own radio show, and has had opportunities to take up a position in several of the nation’s top selective institutions. But, like you, he has preferred teaching in community colleges, prisons, and other such low income, non-selective (and in case of San Quentin, downright dangerous) classrooms. As an ex teacher myself who has had a preference for teaching in low income communities, it only gave me more respect for the man. His eyes weren’t on the big bucks, but on creating students who saw value in contributing something to their community.

  3. Cedar Riener says:

    Mike and AnnMaria, thanks for commenting and adding your perspective.
    I also wanted to pull in a little of the conversation on twitter:
    Morgan Polikoff (@mpolikoff) makes a couple of good points:
    First, What if poor smart kids drop out more at non-selective institutions, should be be concerned about this?
    I agree that we should, but to me this brings up the weakness of lumping together less-selective 4 year places, community colleges and for-profits. I agree that many for-profits are a problem, and don’t seem to care about graduation rates. We should care about this, but I don’t think the solution is to make the Ivies more accessible, but to improve those other places.
    Second, Morgan asks if we want Harvard etc to do more outreach to those types of kids. Absolutely. I see no problem with that. I would have appreciated that. But that is Harvard’s problem, not _necessarily_ the kids loss, or the nations, as the two articles quoted above frame it.
    I am fine with Hoxby and Avery being interpreted as advice to Harvard on how to expand their admissions pool. But that’s not worth a NBER working paper.

  4. elkement says:

    Thanks – an awesome post! I am surprised how much that resonates with me! I am from Austria and we do not have such a strong tradition of university rankings and “top” universities – but that’s about to change. The lack of “mobility” of Austrian students has been infamous in general.
    I had been one of those “poor and smart” students who was glad to study at the local university for the simple reason I was not that fond of leaving home – that’s a personal preference.
    I had lived up this alleged stereotype later when opting out of academia after my PhD in order to avoid the international nomadic postdoc life style.
    And I had never understood either what is so wrong about this. I think if we are that “smart” really we could also utilize that smartness in improving our regional community.

  5. Funny–I had my comment all ready just before I got halfway through your post, but then you made it yourself (the stuff in bold). Yes it is mostly about differing values. More importantly, it’s also about taking care to obtain as much information as you can before forming an opinion rather than selectively using the few facts that support your already-existing one. You probably noticed that the comments that followed the article in the Atlantic for the most part made more sense than did the main body. :>) Justice :>) In the end, as I see it, there’s really no correct opinion. The trouble starts when someone assumes that theirs is the only one and the right one…and they don’t care about the real information. I, too, work for all students (rural k-12 in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada) in my case and, guess what? I get that same crap that you just faced…all the time. Fortunately there’s a group of people, also in the province, who work to ensure that the multitude of voices get heard…most of the time.

  6. Noah L Dowell says:

    I agree with the Wolfers and Stevenson article mainly due to the fact how it strikingly reflects my experiences. As a first-generation college student from a poor family I had no idea on how to apply for college. While I certainly had strong values coming from my parents they were not a complete reflection of who I was. I had no clue that I was intelligent and with my peers any revelation of intellect was certainly frowned upon. I had no idea what being a scholar or a professional entailed. So I went to a good state school but by no means an “Ivy.” This was a mistake I have been trying to recover from my whole life. I love doing science, I am decent at it and I want to do it in an academic setting. As I have climbed the career path of an academic scientist I have come to accept that I am as creative and intelligent as my peers at the “best” schools but my educational pedigree is a constant weakness on my CV. We can argue that one should not make quick judgements about someone on such ridiculous criteria but the truth is this is done all of the time. My career path or values are certainly not a relevant probably to anyone else but I think their point is a good one: I could have handled the intellectual environment and it would have opened up many opportunities that I am interested in to this day.

    • Cedar Riener says:

      Noah, I hear you, and I am sorry to hear that you have had to cope with that perception of weakness on your CV through your journey as an academic scientist. I was someone who had the Ivy experience, but had some early ineffective teachers and mentors in science, and ended up being discouraged from science (despite a lot of interest and hard work in high school) and finding history of science.
      For me one critical point (and I bring this up in the follow-up post) is whether you are actually a lesser scientist because you don’t have the same pedigree, or whether it is merely a prejudice of other people’s perception. I would submit it is far more likely the latter. In this case, I would rather solve the problem by acknowledging that you can be just as productive a scientist without the pedigree, than trying to shoehorn more people into elite schools to accommodate the prejudices of people who have denied you those opportunities.
      Thanks for sharing, I appreciate your perspective.

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  9. Dollared says:

    I’d like to echo Noah’s point. The real problem is the Elite School Pedigree, and the privileges that go with it. I am at a Fortune 500 company (which is why this will be an anonymous post) and it constantly amazes me how a Harvard, Princeton or Stanford degree functions as a substitute for outstanding achievement or sterling qualifications in the evaluation of a resume. On top of that, the extent to which those schools’ alumni networks work within large companies generates the exact opposite of meritocracy. They absolutely do take care of each other, and as the “up or out” of the GE human resources model works its magic, more and more people from outside the magic schools are pushed out. If we are concerned that low income, high potential students don’t reach the elite schools, what we are really saying is that their school choice means that regardless of their achievement or qualifications, they will never overcome the clubbiness and privilege of the elite school graduates. That is functionally and morally wrong, and that is what should be attacked – not their choice of schooling environment.

    • Cedar Riener says:

      Right. So the response to this Elite School Pedigree should not be calling low income students “low information” because they don’t apply to elite schools, but making more of an effort to recognize that they might actually know what they are doing after succeeding in community college, then going to state school. The fact that people who go through lower status institutions do not make as much money as those who go to Ivy League schools is not a law of the universe. The relative differences in results is certainly affected by the fact that managers hire them more and pay them more, whether they are worth it or not. We shouldn’t be acting as if this is simply a fact of the world, rather we should be trying to give community colleges and lower status places more resources, and fight against old-boy networks that perpetuate an American aristocracy and call it a meritocracy.

  10. abby s says:

    But not all poor kids are based in rural America. I was an over-achieving poor kid from New York City who was raised in a family that respected books more than anything else (even though neither of my parents had graduated college and had a hard enough time, financially, even starting college before having to drop out to support themselves and their families). Going to an Ivy League college (in my case, Columbia) made a world of difference to me because it opened up possibilities to me, while also teaching me a lot of the basics of cultural literacy to which I might not have otherwise had access. The only drawback was that it was TOO close to home. I probably would have derived a lot of benefit from moving a bit further away from my outer-borough home. But the only ‘good’ schools of which I had any knowledge were the Ivies—competitive small liberal arts colleges with large enough endowments to meet my considerable financial aid needs were foreign to me. So, yes, I appreciate your point about students gravitating toward their comfort zones, but I also think that it’s important, from an academic, intellectual, and social viewpoint, to get outside of one’s comfort zone a little bit. I wish there were more advice offered by high school guidance counselors about this, and also about the fact that there really is money out there — not just at the Ivy League schools but also at competitive liberal arts institutions — for overachievers from non-traditional backgrounds.

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