Why Many Smart, Low-Income Students Don't Apply To Elite Schools

Mar 16, 2015
Originally published on March 18, 2015 6:30 am

Right now, high school seniors across the country are trying hard not to think about what is — or isn't — coming in the mail.

They're anxiously awaiting acceptance letters (or the opposite) from their top-choice colleges and universities. But this story isn't about them. It's about a big group of seniors who could get into great schools but don't apply: high-achieving students from low-income families who live outside of America's big cities.

These students often wind up in community college or mediocre four-year schools. It's a phenomenon known in education circles as "undermatching."

Why does it happen?

Reason No. 1: Location, Location, Location

Kristen Hannah Perez is an 18-year-old senior at Celina High School in Celina, Texas. When she's not studying for her AP classes, practicing the euphonium (she made all-state band) or running bingo at the local nursing home, she's working at the only McDonald's in town.

"People have come through the drive-through on their horse," says Perez's co-worker and classmate, Jacquie Cassell. "There are tractors that slow you down and make you late for school. That's how country it is."

The total population of Celina is under 7,000. It's about 40 minutes north of Dallas, and economist Caroline Hoxby of Stanford University says it's the kind of place that college recruiters from selective schools don't usually visit.

Recruiters seek out low-income high achievers by visiting selective high schools — often magnets or schools that require a test for admission. Even if they're not hitting up these selective schools, recruiters looking for low-income high achievers tend to focus on high-poverty ZIP codes in big cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Dallas. Not Celina, Texas.

For her research, Hoxby defines a low-income high achiever as anyone who gets a 29 or better on the ACT or a combined 1,300 on the SAT with a family income of less than $41,000 a year. Kristen Hannah Perez? Check. And check.

Reason No. 2: Guidance Counselors

Believe it or not, guidance counselors are another big reason low-income high achievers aim low when it comes to applying to college.

"Your typical guidance counselor in the United States has about 400 students with whom he or she is trying to deal," says Hoxby. "And they're doing the best they can."

Counselors may not have gone to selective colleges themselves, she adds. They're really busy, and the students who require the most attention aren't usually the good kids with good grades.

"So, the guidance counselor is going to say, 'Hey, you really should go to college. Go to a four-year college, and here is a college that I know of in our area that I think does a good job,' " Hoxby says.

Reason No. 3: 'Out Of Our League'

"Faith, Family and Football" is the unofficial motto of Celina. The Perez family runs a church out of their home. It's Spanish-language Pentecostal.

At Sunday service, Kristen's father, Ezequiel Perez, strums a cherry red electric guitar and sings in Spanish to more than a dozen people sitting on folding chairs in his living room. Kristen plays the electric bass, and her oldest sister, KrisTina, is on drums. Her mother, Sandy, sits in the front row.

"We didn't go to college," says Sandy Perez, who works at a Christian radio station. "You know, my parents were farm workers — migrant workers — so we never thought about this as being possible in our family."

Sandy says she always encouraged Kristen and her three sisters to pursue their education but never thought top-tier schools were an option.

"That's out of our league, out of our range," she says.

Many parents of low-income high achievers didn't go to college, and, when they think of selective schools, they think of the pricey, East Coast elites: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc. The obvious conclusion: Out of our league.

But Caroline Hoxby says it's the wrong conclusion. Selective schools "are cheaper for low-income high achievers than colleges that have fewer resources," she says. That means potentially paying for mediocrity but going to Harvard or Yale for free.

Free.

What's the difference in the long-run?

Hoxby says there's strong evidence that when students graduate from a selective college they're better off financially.

"You want to think on the order of at least half a million dollars over their lifetime, and that's a very conservative estimate," she says, adding that if we care about social mobility in the U.S. we need to find a way to make higher ed opportunities more obvious to low-income high achievers.

As for Kristen Hannah Perez, she's an exception. She ended up applying to Dartmouth College, where an education, including room and board, costs around $66,000 a year. Not only did she get in, she'll be paying around $5,000 with help from work study and a summer job.

The first thing Sandy Perez did when she heard her daughter had been accepted was to look up churches in the area for Kristen to attend. She found one.

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DON GONYEA, HOST:

Many high school seniors are anxiously awaiting acceptance letters from colleges and universities. But there's a group of students who don't even apply to the top schools they'd be sure to get into; schools with large endowments that would cover most, if not all, of their education. They are low-income high achievers who mainly live outside of the big cities. NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji reports on three reasons why these seniors are not applying.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: First reason - location, location, location.

KRISTEN PEREZ: Thank you for choosing McDonald's. This is Kristen. What can I get for you today?

MERAJI: When Kristen Hannah Perez isn't studying for AP classes, practicing the euphonium - she's made all-state band - or running bingo at the local nursing home, she's working at the only McDonald's in Celina, Texas.

K. PEREZ: Anything else?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No, thank you.

K. PEREZ: All right, (unintelligible) it'll be $1.40 at the first window. Thank you.

MERAJI: Where she's the shift manager. Her employees on this day are fellow Celina high schoolers.

JACQUIE CASSELL: I'm Jacquie Cassell, and I'm a senior.

KAYLA BILLY: I'm Kayla Billy, and I'm a senior.

CASSELL: People have come through the drive-through on their horse.

BILLY: (Laughter).

CASSELL: Yeah, there's tractors that slow you down and make you late for school. That's how country it is.

BILLY: Yeah, we get made fun of by other schools for, like, we're basically the rednecks.

MERAJI: The total population for the city of Celina is under 7,000 and it's about 40 minutes outside of Dallas.

CAROLINE HOXBY: A student from certain metropolitan areas in the United States is really likely to end up getting recruited by a selective college if he or she is a low-income high achiever.

MERAJI: That's Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby. She researches the effects of education on economic growth. Hoxby says there are two ways college recruiters go about finding low-income high achievers - they visit selective schools, magnet schools and schools you have to take a test to get into.

HOXBY: Like, Stuyvesant in New York or the Lowell School in San Francisco.

MERAJI: Schools like that make up 3 percent of the U.S. high school total. Next, recruiters go to schools in high poverty zip codes. But that formula also works best in the densest metropolitan cities, like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or Dallas, Texas, so not Celina, Texas.

HOXBY: Anywhere from eight-ninths to nine-tenths of the low-income high achievers in the United States, you really cannot find them via one of these two methods.

MERAJI: Hoxby defines a low-income high achiever as anyone who gets a 29 or above on their ACTs, a 1,300 combined their SATs, with a family income of less than $41,000 a year, like Kristen, who we ordered from earlier at McDonald's. I had her take me on a driving tour of Celina on a cold, wet Saturday night. We started in the town square, which looks like it belongs on the set of an old western. Outdoor speakers blare country music day and night, sun or rain.

K. PEREZ: I hate country music.

MERAJI: Kristen's family lives in the tiny downtown, which is where many of the older homes are. There's farmland that surrounds it, some fancy new tract home developments and churches - lots of churches.

K. PEREZ: That's one of the many. There's one right there, one more if you go down that way, two more that way (laughter).

MERAJI: Faith, family and football is the unofficial Celina motto. Kristen's family runs a church out of their house. It's Spanish-language Pentecostal, and when they're not in worship, her mom works at a Christian radio station and her dad's a landscaper. She's the youngest of four girls.

K. PEREZ: You know, so, like, I've never liked asking my parents for money; like, got to pay from my AP test, SAT test, ACT test.

MERAJI: Kristen got a 33 on her ACTs. That's the top 2 percent. She's taking AP calculus, AP lit, AP Spanish, AP chem and a college econ and government course online.

K. PEREZ: OK. You're going to turn left. I'll show you. This is the way I go to school.

MERAJI: We drove by Celina High, a beautiful new campus with a huge gym and sprawling parking lot. And as we pass I ask Kristen where her guidance counselor says she should apply to college.

K. PEREZ: Apply to Texas A&M Commerce because they will give you a full ride. Don't apply to UT because they won't give you any money - end of story.

MERAJI: Now we've arrived at reason number two for why low-income high achievers don't apply to selective universities.

HOXBY: Your typical guidance counselor in the United States has about 400 students with whom he or she is trying to deal.

MERAJI: Hoxby adds that guidance counselors may not have gone to selective colleges themselves. They're really busy and their highest-priority students aren't usually the good kids with the good grades.

HOXBY: And so the guidance counselor is going to say, hey, you really should go to college. You should go to a four-year college, and here is a college that I know of in our area that I think does a good job.

EZEQUIEL PEREZ: (Singing in Spanish).

MERAJI: At Sunday service at her house, Kristen's dad, Ezequiel Perez, strums a cherry red electric guitar and sings with about a dozen people sitting on folding chairs in the living room. Kristen plays the electric bass and her oldest sister, KristTina, is on the drums. Kristen's mom, Sandy, sits in the front row helping throughout the service.

SANDY PEREZ: I mean, we didn't go to college, you know? And, of course, my parents, they were migrant workers so we never, you know, thought about this as, you know, being possible in our family.

MERAJI: Sandy finished an ESL high school program in Texas for farmworker's kids and her husband came from Durango, Mexico, when he was a teenager. Sandy says she's always encouraged her children to pursue their education, but never thought top-tier schools were an option.

S. PEREZ: I mean, that's out of our league, out of our range.

E. PEREZ: (Singing in Spanish).

MERAJI: And here we are at reason number three - oftentimes parents of low-income high achievers didn't go to college. And when they think of selective schools they think of pricey, East Coast Ivys, like Harvard and Yale. The obvious conclusion - out of our league, out of our range. Caroline Hoxby says it's counterintuitive, but they're wrong.

HOXBY: They are cheaper for low-income high achievers than colleges that have fewer resources.

MERAJI: Which means for a low-income high achiever, Harvard or Yale could be free - free - but recruiters aren't visiting to tell you that. Your guidance counselor might not know and your parents are saying they just can't afford it. So yeah, why apply? Hoxby says there's strong evidence that when students graduate from a selective college, they're better off financially.

HOXBY: You want to think on the order of at least half a million dollars over their lifetime, and that's a very conservative estimate.

MERAJI: Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby says if we care about social mobility in the U.S., we need to find a way to make higher ed opportunities more obvious to these low-income high achievers. Students like Kristen Hannah Perez from Celina, Texas. She beat the odds, by the way - ended up applying to Dartmouth, where an education, including room and board, costs around $66,000 a year and she got in. She'll be paying around $5,000 with help from work-study and a summer job. Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.