In Search of High Achieving Low Income Students

Many highly selective colleges are in search of ‘smart students from poor families.”

These ‘High Achieving, Low Income’ students (HALI).are defined as students in the top 4% of their class who score in the top 10% on either the SAT or ACT.  A 2013 study conducted by Caroline Hoxby at Stanford and Christopher Avery of Harvard, entitled “The Missing ‘One-Offs’: The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving Low-Income Students” garnered data on every student who took the SAT during the prior year ensuring its findings were statistically significant.

It found only a third of the HALI students attend one of the top two hundred highly selective colleges, while three quarters of the high achievers from wealthy households do. The bulk of the HALI students, unaware of the financial aid available and unacquainted with the selective schools, elect, instead, to attend community colleges or four-year institutions close to home. Unfortunately, because of insufficient resources, a large portion fail to graduate.  This is particularly concerning since many studies indicate that a college education triples a person’s chances of rising from a lower to a higher income status.

Selective colleges are searching for HALI students mostly within the 15 largest metropolitan areas in the country, such as New York, San Francisco, Chicago, or Dallas. This means those living in smaller cities such as Bridgeport, CT, Toledo, OH, or Boise are likely to be missed. Even the ethnic composition of HALI students makes them difficult to find: 70% are white, 15% Asian American, 8% Latino, and 6% African American.

Nonetheless, Amherst, under its former president Anthony Marx (2003-2011), made a concerted effort to attract HALI students. First, Amherst went on a mission to find HALI students. Admissions officers were encouraged to visit and make presentations at low-income schools in places and cities which had been previously overlooked. Amherst even became more aggressive in soliciting transfer students from community colleges, while it increased the amount of financial aid available. This encouraged HALI students to apply.

The admissions department then began accepting HALI students in higher numbers. Next Amherst put in place supports to ensure these students would succeed once accepted. These included orientation programs, tutoring assistance, and mentoring programs. Amherst also did its utmost to ensure that students were being included in all areas of college life. Moreover, issues of class differences were discussed openly, understood and resolved. Additionally, to mollify any concerns among its legacy and athletic departments, Amherst increased the student population to accommodate the extra numbers of students.

By the end of Marx’s tenure the number of low income students at Amherst had more than doubled. This is measured by the number of students getting Pell Grants. About a third of the students on the average US campus get Pell Grants. 22% of Amherst’s student population now receives Pell Grants—below the national average-- but well above the average for the highly selective schools. As a frame of reference, Harvard is 20%, Brown 15%, Yale 14%, and Middlebury is 11%.

What makes the Amherst effort even more gratifying, is, despite many predictions that recruiting HALI students would weaken Amherst’s academic prowess and selectivity, just the opposite occurred: Amherst’s selectivity increased and alumni giving grew stronger than ever.

If you are a HALI student please be aware that there is an option for you among the most selective colleges in the country. They have the financial aid available and most are opening their arms to include you into all aspects of their campus life. Contemplating applying to places such as Yale or the University of Chicago might at first seem intimidating, distant, and unreal, but get past such thoughts; there are a lot of resources available to make that pathway your reality. Be bold.