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.