Smart Poor Kids Get Screwed by College Admissions

A blog about business and economics.
March 22 2013 10:49 AM

How Smart Poor Kids Get Screwed by the College Admissions Process

Princeton campus
In America, the most selective schools are also generally the richest ones

Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

If I told you that smart kids from low-income households get screwed by the college admissions system, you'd no doubt believe me. But what's surprising is that they don't quite get screwed in the way you'd think. When I wrote a column about the latest research on this, I focused on the fact that most kids from the top decile of standardized test achievement but the bottom quartile of the income distribution don't even apply to any selective colleges. Some folks who read that said, well, of course they don't because they'd have a hard time getting in or a hard time affording it. But one of the striking findings of the paper is that those kids who do apply to a full set of selective colleges are just as likely to be admitted as kids from higher income brackets. Even more telling, they're just as likely to enroll and graduate as kids from higher income brackets. The graduation data strongly suggests that it's not an affordability issue as such. And in fact a slightly updated version of the paper that's now available makes this clear:

college tabl

As you can see above, the actual tuition charged to a low-income student is substantially lower at more selective schools than at less selective ones even as the instructional spending per student is higher. That's because in America the most selective schools are also generally the richest ones. They can afford to be more generous with scholarships and also spend more on teaching.


The problem really does seem to quite literally be that most low-income kids and their families are not well-informed about the situation. They don't know personally what kind of SAT or ACT scores are good enough to go to a selective college, they don't know which selective colleges are appropriate for someone with their test scores to apply to, they don't know the strategic logic of "safety schools" and "reaches", they don't know about need-blind admissions policies, and they don't have any social acquaintances who can inform this. Isn't this what school guidance counselors are supposed to be for? Indeed it is! But they're seemingly not doing a very good job, nor are the recruiting arms of selective schools.

The good news here is that the problem seems relatively easy to solve in the scheme of things. What's more, progress toward solving the problem should create momentum. Every time a kid from a low-income household succeeds in playing the admissions game correctly, that creates a chain of aquaintances and family members back in the old neighborhood who may have learned something.

However, we're seeing a real cost here to America's relatively complicated and decentralized system. A more centralized system in which everyone takes the Official College Entrance Test and then receives a letter from the government informing them of their score-based options and income-based financial aid would have some problems, but could be a boon to working class kids.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.



Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
Buy a Small Business
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 PM Inking the Deal Why tattoo parlors are a great small-business bet.
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?