It’s April, which means a sliver of high school seniors across the country are celebrating acceptance letters from the nation’s top schools, while most applicants to those colleges are licking their wounds over rejections. And it’s likely an even smaller sliver of low-income college applicants netted one of those coveted spots. A study released earlier this month offers some insight as to why: admissions officers don’t have enough information about them.
Admissions officers were 26% more likely to recommend low-income students when provided detailed information about them and their high schools, according to the study from Michael Bastedo, a professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Education and Nicholas Bowman, a professor at University of Iowa’s College of Education.
Typically colleges receive some demographic information about an applicant in addition to their transcripts, standardized test scores and personal statements. They also often get some data on the student’s high school, but the quality of that information varies by school. The study suggests that applications coming from low-income students, particularly those at under-resourced high schools, may not come with enough context to accurately portray the magnitude of the student’s success.
The findings come amid growing concern over the role of higher education in minimizing inequality and increasing economic mobility. Though many name-brand colleges claim to be striving to diversify their ranks, the reality is that they educate a small percentage of low-income students. At many of the nation’s most selective colleges, students from families in the top 1% of earners make up a larger share of the population than students from families in the bottom 60% of households, earlier research shows.
Instead, these students are more likely to attend less-selective and in many cases, under-resourced colleges, which can make it less likely that they’ll succeed. “We want to be a country that has educational mobility, we don’t want to just reproduce the disadvantages that students have had in their education,” Bastedo said.
Much of the conversation surrounding increasing the number of low-income students at selective colleges has focused on providing students with more information about the schools — including that they’re likely to receive generous financial aid packages from these colleges — instead of focusing on the institution’s role in attracting and evaluating these students, Bastedo said. This latest study offers one possible strategy college admissions professionals can use to diversify their ranks.
When the researchers provided admissions officers with detailed information about low-income applicants — such as the college admissions rates at their high school, the number of advanced placement classes offered by their school, and the share of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch — admissions officers were more likely to recommend those students be accepted. Admissions officers presented with basic information that could tip them off to the socioeconomic status of the applicant, like parental education and high school graduation rate, ruled less favorably on the low-income applicants. (To maintain consistency, all of the fictional applicants were white males interested in engineering.)
The limited package of information is similar to what most admissions professionals actually receive from low-income applicants, Bastedo said. High schools typically send a so-called profile sheet explaining the characteristics of the school, such as the level of academic rigor. But many of the high schools low-income students attend don’t have the resources to provide an extremely detailed profile sheet.
That means admissions officers might look less favorably on a low-income student who only completed two advanced placement courses even if that’s all that was available at their high school. “There’s a lot of talent among students who don’t have a lot of advantages, but have a lot of potential to do amazing things in their lives,” Bastedo said. Providing more information “can better help to identify some of the best talent that’s available.”