college degree

In a recent voyeuristic moment, I used Facebook to search for an old friend of mine with whom I had lost touch after high school. I was shocked and disappointed in what I saw.

Finding her on Facebook, I skimmed her page, halting when I got to “education.” I looked once, then twice. I found only the name of the high school we attended together. You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought. She was hands-down the smartest girl I knew in high school, a whiz at math and science. Yet she hadn’t graduated from college. Though I can’t say for sure, I have a strong hunch it had to do with finances. Unfortunately, she’s just one would-be college graduate who’s part of a widespread trend that’s still happening today.

The problem? The majority of high-achieving, low-income high school students do not even apply to the nation’s best colleges. This decision has long-term, negative consequences for these students, according to education researchers and economists at Harvard and Stanford who conducted a broad-based analysis of every high school student in the U.S. who took the SAT in a recent year.

Crunching the numbers, the economists came up with these sad disparities. Seventy eight percent of the nation’s highest-achieving students in the wealthiest income bracket attended one of the nation’s 238 most selective colleges. Just 34 percent of their peers with similar academic records who fell into the bottom income bracket went to these same schools. So what, you might say. Who needs a selective college?

Actually, the ramifications are far-reaching and long-term. The local colleges that the majority of low-income students end up attending have fewer resources. What’s worse, graduation rates from community colleges, the choice of many low-income students, are notoriously low. To quote the dire results of a report conducted in 2012 by the American Association of Community Colleges: “less than half of students who enter a community college graduate or transfer to a four-year college within six years.”

Reading the results of this report made me think of my high school friend in question, whom I’ll call Lucy. Until it came time to apply for college, I never gave much thought to the fact that she was raised by a single mother who worked long hours, or that her house was appreciably smaller, and in a neighborhood that looked a lot different, than those of most of my other high school friends.

But when most of my friends and I during senior year were stressing about college application essays, Lucy said very little. When we shared our acceptance and rejection letters that had come in the mail the spring of our senior year, Lucy said she’d planned to enroll in community college. I couldn’t believe she wouldn’t try to get a scholarship somewhere; her grades and test scores were phenomenal. Clearly, Lucy fell into a trap similar to that of so many others in her situation.

“[these students] lack exposure to people who say there is a difference among colleges,” stated Caroline M. Hoxby, the Stanford economist who co-authored the aforementioned study, in a March 16, 2013 article in the New York Times.

The broad-based study is getting a lot of attention from college officials, which may help kick-start selective colleges’ heavier active recruitment of low-income, high-achieving high school students who might otherwise fall through the cracks.

Let’s hope that happens. It could reverse a negative, multi-generational trend that results in way too many people with loads of potential, like Lucy, not reaching theirs.