Brief Follow-Up to Poor Smart Kids and College Choice


Been thinking more on my piece last night on the problems of poor smart kids choosing not to apply to selective colleges. I still think seeing this as an unqualified national crisis is overblown, and a bit elitist.

But I do want to leave space for a few complicating factors. First, when people from poor backgrounds do find success by leaving their communities and entering elite halls of academia, I applaud them. One of my other friends at Harvard came from a poor background, went to Harvard, then Columbia Law School and is now a successful corporate lawyer. If he had chosen a less selective CUNY would this path have been as open to him? I would acknowledge likely not. I really appreciated Ron Suskind’s book, A Hope in the Unseen, chronicling the journey of one student from a truly disadvantaged background (unlike my own privileged background despite being low-income) of Ballou High School in DC to Brown University. Despite many struggles, both at home in DC and with the huge cultural differences between Brown and Ballou, Cedric Jennings graduated and is successful. I certainly don’t mean to say that he should have gone to the University of the District of Columbia, or Prince George’s Community College, like many of his classmates. But this was not clearly and unambiguously a better path for Cedric all the way through. The book shows that there were real difficulties at Brown that were not only Cedric’s lack of intellectual  background.  And there are some Cedric’s who don’t end up at those places. Are they wasting their time? No. If we are displeased with the fate of smart kids at less selective places, we should improve those less selective places instead of taking their institutional poverty as a given and trying to funnel the “achievers” away from them.

And we should do that without saying things like:

Getting these students in our best colleges should be a national ambition. It would increase social mobility, raise national productivity, increase taxable income, shrink our deficit, cut income-support payments … you get the point.

But there is one more point I want to make. The Hoxby paper and commentary seem to treat the link between less selective schooling and salary/success etc as a law of the universe. Go to Harvard, make big $ because you are smart. Go to Chico State, make no money, because you don’t get the smarts and skills you would have gotten at Harvard. But there is an alternative explanation, provided by this interesting “class autobiography” written by University of Oregon economist Mark Thoma:

I did well at Chico, really well, but I was naive. This is going to sound dumb to all of you, but I really didn’t understand the difference between Stanford, Berkeley, and Chico State. Where I grew up, there were two types of people, those who went to college, and those who didn’t. It didn’t much matter where, just going and getting a degree was enough. I suppose the “upper class” understood the difference, but in working class land where I grew up, such distinctions weren’t drawn, at least not in my house. The Ivy league was for other people, and people either went to college or they didn’t, to Chico, maybe to a UC if they could afford it. And those who went often never returned. When I hear Bryan Caplan say in his essay “What if I had grown up rich? … I would have gone to the Ivy League instead of UC Berkeley, but it’s not like Berkeley held me back,” I have to laugh because to me, Berkeley was an elite school, a dream, not something I could ever do. My third year at Chico a faculty member took me aside and told me I needed to go to a UC school, Chico wouldn’t do. I called my parents and told them, and they said, simply, that’s not going to happen.

I had no idea how limiting coming out of Chico would be. I’ve seen a lot of graduate applications in my life, and mine was more than competitive as a math/econ/stat major with really good GREs and great supporting letters. But I was denied every place I applied and to this day I think that still affects my attitude about this profession. I can remember opening the letter with the last chance I had on my front porch and feeling crushed. I was going back to the tractor store just like my dad, brother, and grandfather. You can’t get there from Chico no matter how good your record is.

Fortunately for me, I was working for a faculty member doing work for Medicaid estimating reimbursement levels for pharmaceutical drugs and he got to know me pretty well (he’s president of a university now). When he found out I had been rejected everywhere, he made a phone call and got me into Washington State University with money, the place where he had gone to graduate school (in an afternoon – it wasn’t until much later that I realized how much I owed him for doing that).

The whole thing is interesting. Please read it. It is definitely more complicated than just this point. But it introduces this possibility that maybe, just maybe,  part of the reason that high achieving students coming from “low” places don’t get ahead is not their own relative incompetence, but active discrimination. Lauren Rivera published this important paper in which she interviewed hiring officers at many elite firms (banking, consulting, etc) What is the way to appropriately address that discrimination? It seems that Hoxby, Wolfers, and Thompson would rather ignore it and send more high achievers to “top-flight” schools? I disagree. Of course, this need not be an either/or proposition. But I happen to think diminishing and turning away excellent people from Chico State is a bigger problem than the fact that the Mark Thoma’s of the world don’t apply to Stanford.


About Cedar Riener

College psychology professor, husband, father.
This entry was posted in science. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Brief Follow-Up to Poor Smart Kids and College Choice

  1. Pingback: Personal Drivers and Blind Spots in Study on Poor Smart Kids and College Choice | Cedar's Digest

  2. It’s an ugly truth (or at least half-truth) but educational institutions, for all the lofty talk, are the most small-c conservative institutions out there. Keep things like they are. Find reasons not to change too much. Don’t rock the boat.
    …and most importantly: look at ‘buddy’ over there. He’s getting too far ahead; too big for his boots. Let’s set him back to where he belongs.
    I’m not saying this comes from the students or form most of the faculty. It does, though, come from the ‘senior’ places that, in the end, get the final say.
    And you will never see any of it in writing :>)

  3. I don’t profess to know what is “better” for any individual student, but I do believe the world will be a better place if the so-called elite colleges aren’t allowed to be the sole province of the privileged class. Do I think the presence of low-income students, in critical numbers, will eliminate elitism and “active discrimination”? Of course not. The world always has been and always will be stratified by wealth and power. Greater socioeconomic diversity in the Ivy leagues and other highly selective colleges will not fundamentally change that paradigm, but it’s preferable to allowing natural forces of power to do their will unopposed.

    As one who was reared in a rural, working class family, it never occurred to me to look beyond the state university system, despite having the academic credentials to do so. My daughter-in-law, who teaches in an inner-city high school, reports students attend the state university by default, never considering more selective schools. Is that a crisis? Are their choices the “best” for them? I don’t know, and it’s unlikely they know either because their horizons are too close to see the possibilities.

    I have no interest in the characterizations, but, perhaps because of my own background, I like to see the horizon of possibilities for working and low-income kids extended. I like for them to be aware of the possibilities and feel confident in taking a place at the colleges that possess the wealth, reputation and connections to open doors that are much less likely to open for students at less selective schools. It is highly probable that Justice Sotomayor wouldn’t be sitting on the U.S. Supreme Court today if she hadn’t attended Princeton as an undergraduate and,later, Yale law school. If we don’t reach out to low-income and first-generation high school kids to consider such schools, and if we don’t urge and encourage the so-called elite colleges to reach out to those kids, there will be few Justice Sotomayors, and the world will be diminished as socioeconomic stratification becomes even more entrenched.

    That doesn’t mean those who attend less prestigious schools are lesser people, and it doesn’t mean money is the driver. Rather, it means we desire a societal structure in which the walls of class are not impenetrable. It means we desire to give our young people real choice and to help them see other possibilities — not necessarily “better” possibilities, but different ones. Whether they are “better” is for the individual to decide for himself.

  4. Christine says:

    There is also the subconscious discrimination, which is a lot harder to stop. If you know “the right people” you’re more likely to get the job. If “the right people” go to Harvard, then going anywhere but Harvard will always be a problem, even if we can get rid of the active discrimination. And I don’t know how to fix this either. Even if the schools are the same in every other way, one will get a reputation of where you go if you want to do X, and then everyone who wants to do X will go there, and you won’t be able to do X if you don’t go there.

  5. Brendan says:

    You’re missing a very important point in Hoxby’s work. I’ll summarize:

    College is expensive. And for low-income students, the expenses are often crippling. As a result (along with other factors), low-income students are also *far* less likely to graduate from college than their high-income counterparts. This is a bad thing for society.

    If we’re concerned about low-income kids falling behind in educational attainment, and we want them to have an equal chance at completing college, we need to find a way to get more of them enrolled in post-secondary programs. How do we do that?

    The impulse among most policy-makers and kids from low-income families is to apply to less-expensive, less-selective institutions. It makes sense that people would think this way! However, in most cases, it would be cheaper for them to go to a private, selective institution a la Harvard because of the generous financial aid they offer.

    This isn’t saying that bright students from low-income families will be unsuccessful unless they attend an elite institution. It’s practical policy advice. In the face of massive state and federal budget cuts hurting an already weak financial aid system, we should be encouraging the most resource constrained students to seek aid from alternate sources (i.e. absurdly large private endowments).

  6. Pingback: Missing the point « Brendan P. Malone

  7. Hi Cedar — enjoyed these posts. While I’m sensitive to some of your instincts re student preferences/fit, and I agree Harvard is in general an unhelpful comparison, I think it’s valid to question how low- and middle-income students/families are choosing colleges and to suggest alternatives if the outcomes aren’t what we’d like to see. Clearly they’re not.

    We all want low-income students to have the best possible shot at completing a high-quality degree and not getting into trouble with debt. So we should help them enroll in high-quality programs that are the best in terms of high completion rates and low net price. That is, value for money. Or pick some other indicators. Value added learning measures, civic skill development, etc. But currently we only have certain data for postsecondary schools based on required reporting for participating in Federal Student Aid programs.

    You mentioned your institution in your first post so let’s take three postsecondary institutions in Richmond, VA, as examples.

    What percent of first-time, full-time male students complete their degree? And what’s the annual net price for students with family income below $30,000 to attend these schools?

    J. Sergeant Reynolds Community College: 7% complete their 2-year degree in 3 years (that’s not a typo); net price is $4,000 per year
    Randolf-Macon: 52% complete 4-year degree in 6 years; net price is $16,000 per year
    University of Richmond: 82% complete 4-year degree n 6 years; net price is $4,000 per year


    Imagine you were a guy who just got laid off in Richmond and decided to go back to school full time for a college degree. Or you just turned 18 and were ready to be the first in your family to graduate from college. These are your three options. You’ve been accepted to all three. All three fit your schedule, academic interests, transportation needs, etc. Where would you go?

    It doesn’t seem controversial to say low- and middle-income students should choose colleges with better records of success, if they’re able to choose them, especially if they cost less. The Hoxby paper is not the first to show that students are not optimizing their choices in terms of likelihood to graduate. See “Rising to the Challenge” AEI report that finds “There is considerable variation in Hispanic graduation rates across schools with similar admissions criteria.”

    If students choose colleges based on quality and price, they will be putting market pressure on schools with worse track records and higher price tags to re-think what they’re doing — and hopefully make big changes, not just spend more on advertising. If so, future students will face a different field of choices and have better chances to be successful.

    What do you think?

    Figuring out how to get students/families to make choices based on these sorts of indicators is another issue I’d love to discuss with you.

    Philip Martin

    Former official at U.S. Department of Education, 2009-2012; currently pursuing MBA at EDHEC Business School in Nice, France.

    • Cedar Riener says:

      Hi Philip, thanks for coming by and leaving such an extensive comment. On one hand, I totally agree that people should make informed decisions, and we should especially want poor kids who have worked hard and gotten good grades to end up in a place which works hard for them and has adequate resources. However, I think your citation of those statistics shows how tricky this approach can be.
      I don’t think it is quite fair to say that the fact that U of Richmond has an 82% graduation rate is a characteristic of U of R, rather than a characteristic of the students who happen to choose U of R. Just about everyone who enters Harvard graduates, despite it being a place that doesn’t mind having a “weeding out” mentality on a number of fronts. If we randomized the people who went to J. Sarge and those who went to U of R, I think you would find that J. Sarge’s grad rate would skyrocket, while Richmond’s would plummet.
      Treating graduation rate as a simple bellwether of an institution’s success is just not accurate. I have seen this directly. This year I am teaching a first year seminar, and a few first year students dropped out between spring and fall. One was quite engaged in courses, did fine, but dropped out for some other reason. Another was simply checked out from the very beginning due to a really tough family situation.
      Here I want to make one more point. This student probably came to my school (Randolph-Macon) in part because it was close to family. Students who choose to go to a local college (or a regional college, instead of a national elite) sometimes do so because they want to stay close to family. These students, even if we matched them in income with the students who went to Harvard, Stanford, or wherever, might be critically different. The student whose parents make $29K but are healthy, together and loving, might be more likely to go to college across the country, whereas the student who has sick family members, who still serves a caretaker role, might be more likely to stay closer to home. When their relative becomes more needy, or passes away, this student is more likely to drop out. Should we so clearly conclude that this dropout is an institutional failing?

      All this said, I think poor smart kids should apply to many schools. They should visit schools outside of their region. I would love it if they felt supported and felt that they would belong at the elite schools that Hoxby and Avery think they would benefit from. But I think we should be a lot more cautious in taking their choices as simply “uninformed.” And that if they were informed of how little it would cost them to go to elite college x, they would drop everything and go there. Just by cost, and all other things being equal, it would clearly make more sense for the student above to go to U of R. And it saddens me that we charge them 16K on average. Unfortunately we are not a wealthy enough place to compete with U of R on price for that student. But the irony of it is that I think the student visiting our campus would likely feel that they “fit in” more here than at U of R. Elite colleges are full of professors who have spent careers teaching elite students. There are certain elements of the culture at elite places that are outright hostile to kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is not to say that poor smart kids can’t succeed, or wouldn’t be able to “cut it” academically. Just that they might be making a judgment that this isn’t a place which particularly cares about them, or where they would fit in. I think the idea that student decisions could somehow exert market pressures on quality and price really ignores a lot of how all students (not just poor, smart kids) make college choices.

      • Thanks for responding!

        Good point re selection bias/creaming and completion rates. I should have suggested three schools with same Pell Grant population for better comparison.

        Re cultural fit/comfort, is it associated with better student outcomes (learning, career skills, civic skills, program completion, avoiding loan default, etc.)?

        I agree students probably make choices based on things they think are important (location, familiarity, etc.) and overall do not appear to be making college choices based on some realistic prediction of their likely academic success at a particular institution (i.e. “quality”). (Price does seem to play a role in some good and bad ways as Brendan notes above.)

        That’s my concern. Whatever mental/emotional algorithm students are currently using to select schools is not working, even if it feels good when their doing it. I’d like to find a way to “nudge” them to use a better one. If they do “vote with their feet” as both democrats and republicans have suggested, I can’t see how schools they don’t choose wouldn’t be (at least financially) motivated to improve…

  8. Cedar Riener says:

    Well, I’d take issue with a broad “whatever algorithm students are using is not working” conclusion. I’d be happy if more voted with their feet if their feet were more concerned with academics or outcomes I consider important like being an informed citizen. But the cultural comfort issue cuts both ways. Most elite college students would do just as well in terms of completion, salary, etc etc going to less elite places. Should we make sure a lot less people apply to Ivies because it won’t be worth it to them? If we are honestly appraising “quality” based on outcomes you suggest, we should come to the conclusion that most served at Harvard would do just as well in life at University of Michigan, or Wisconsin, or any number of other schools one notch down on the status scale. But instead, 35,000 people apply to Harvard, thinking it is worth it for them. Instead of saying that it isn’t (it isn’t), Hoxby and Avery think there should be more. Your suggestion that if fewer people went to J. Sarge, this would somehow put market pressure on them to be better, to me ignores the elephant in the room. We have chosen as a society to not support community colleges or other public universities with adequate resources. There has been a systematic public disinvestment in higher education. I don’t see how market solutions in higher ed could do anything but what they have already done quite well, continue to sort between the haves and the have-nots and exacerbate that difference. Part of the reason that elite colleges don’t enroll more poor students is that narrowing gaps between haves and have-nots is not their mission. In some ways, it is contrary to their mission.

  9. Pingback: Thumb on the PayScale | Cedar's Digest

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s