Poor But Smart? Aim High, Say Researchers

March 14, 2013 by  


By Karin Friedemann, TMO

Screen Shot 2013-01-24 at 12.48.49 PMMost American high school students from poor families, who earn excellent grades, are not aware that top notch colleges and universities want them, says a recent study.

“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,”

researchers Caroline Hoxby of Stanford’s economics department and Christopher Avery from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government have discovered. Their findings are reported in an exciting research paper called “The Missing “One-Offs”: The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low Income Students,” published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The study shows that high-achieving, low income high school students who come from school districts too small or underfunded to support selective public high schools (where students must pass an exam to attend advanced level classes), usually go unnoticed. Recruiters from top-notch universities are especially unlikely to target poor but smart students in rural areas. These students are also much less likely to encounter an adult who has ever attended a selective college. As a result, high achievers from low income families, who do not live in an urban center near high class universities, are most likely to apply to nearby community colleges, even when they could have been admitted to a highly selective university.

The research study “adds to our understanding of structural inequality in America and the striking barriers to social mobility. But in a sense it’s an optimistic story,” writes Matthew Yglesias in an article entitled “Smart, Poor Kids Are Applying to the Wrong Colleges” on Slate.com.

The biggest determining factor for whether or not a low-income high achiever will apply to a high class college is whether or not the child has a mentor. In most cases this mentor is a parent, but it can also be another adult, who leads the child through the process of applying for colleges and financial aid, as well as giving the child the confidence to want to embark on a learning adventure.

Upper and middle class families typically help their children shop around for colleges, often visiting college campuses and optimistically submitting several applications to different schools, only deciding where to go after hopefully having received several acceptance letters, and after carefully researching the schools’ qualities and the availability of financial aid. In this way, the student’s academic abilities are closely matched with the academic offerings of the school they choose. However, the researchers found that poor high achievers who are not personally recruited by a high class college will usually not even bother applying.

The bright side is that “high-achieving, low-income students who do apply to selective institutions are admitted and graduate at high rates.”

Most students with SAT or ACT scores in the top 10 percent come from high-income families. “Just 17 percent of high-achieving students are from families estimated to be in the bottom quartile of the income distribution. But while low-income students are underrepresented among high achievers, 17 percent is still a lot of people—something like 25,000 to 35,000 per year. Of those, about 70 percent are white, 15 percent Asian, and 15 percent black or Hispanic.”

Only 8% of these poor but smart kids ever apply to selective universities.

“Each year, 10,000 or 20,000 of America’s brightest high-school graduates don’t go to a great college not because they can’t afford one but because they don’t realize they should apply,” writes Yglesias.
The best solution? Go ahead and apply for dream colleges that seem out of reach, while assuming that financial aid will be made available.

Every university website has a “Financial Aid” section. Under the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative, for example, families with incomes below $65,000 are not even expected to contribute to college costs.

All you have to do is get admitted. The Financial Aid webpage for Harvard University states:

“Harvard College has provided assistance to students who need help in meeting their education expenses for over 350 years, enabling us to seek out the most outstanding scholars in the world and open our doors to students of exceptional ability and promise, regardless of their financial circumstances. Over 60% of undergraduates will receive an estimated $172 million in need-based Harvard Scholarship aid in 2012-13… A typical student may receive over $150,000 in Harvard scholarship assistance over four years and the majority of students receiving scholarship are able to graduate debt-free.”

The dark cloud inside the silver lining is that not everyone who goes to college, even the best of colleges, will automatically get a good job when they graduate. The skills that help you earn good grades:  being quiet, following instructions, memorization and regurgitation, etc. are not the skills that will help you succeed in the “real world.” Real world success also involves social popularity, a strong background of meaningful experiences leading to deep emotional reservoirs, calculated risk-taking, idealism, creativity and even sometimes more than a bit of aggressive self-seeking.

Susan Adams writes in Forbes magazine that “the old-fashioned idea of spending your time at college exploring intellectual pursuits and putting off entry into the real world of work is no longer relevant.

If you haven’t started networking, putting together a LinkedIn profile and doing internships in high school, you should start your freshman year.”

Dan Shawbel, author of “Me 2.0: 4 Steps to Building Your Future,” insists: “The longer you wait, the worse off you are.”

While the majority of young people look to their parents for advice and mentoring, Shawbel advises against over-relying on parental guidance.

“Unless your parents work in the field you want to pursue, they are not going to be able to help you most effectively. You’ve got to find someone who is doing what you want to do.” He recommends using your school’s career resource center, accessing the alumni association, and joining a professional development or industry-specific group or club.

In this author’s experience, joining the Muslim Students’ Association email list of the school you attend or wish to attend is highly recommended as a tool of communication for making friends. It is also extremely useful as a tool for locating roommates, which is especially important when seeking accommodations far from home.

Having a career goal is probably the most important aspect of success.

Visualizing what you wish to achieve is essential to staying motivated and focused on your education as a path to an interesting life.

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