Researchers urge more nuanced approach to enrolling low-income students

Under pressure to increase socioeconomic diversity, a number of selective colleges have pushed to enroll more low-income students. Yet, in rushing to do so, they may be focusing on metrics that ignore the composition of their applicant pool and exclude crucial segments of lower-income students, according to Caroline M. Hoxby, professor of economics at Stanford University, and Sarah Turner, professor of economics at the University of Virginia.

Hoxby and Turner’s previous research shed light on the phenomenon known as undermatching—in which high-achieving, lower-income students hesitate to apply to the nation’s best schools—and fueled calls for selective institutions to improve their low-income student outreach and support. In their new paper, the authors urge higher education to take a more nuanced approach to increasing enrollment among low-income students, asserting that schools have overlooked their original call for thoughtful, data-driven approaches to admitting those students and ensuring they thrive.

“People at some level didn’t pay attention to what we said in those articles,” Hoxby told The Chronicle of Higher Education. “That message got completely lost.” Turner echoed this sentiment in an interview with Inside Higher Ed, saying that “public shaming around what I would call bad measures…leads to defensive and reactionary responses by institutions.”

Researchers: Consider regional demographics, look beyond the bottom income quintile

Specifically, the researchers caution against focusing exclusively on the percentage of students who are eligible for Pell Grants or from families in the bottom quintile of earners. They also question the validity of “intergenerational mobility measurements” designed to show whether institutions’ low-income students eventually change income quintiles.

Doing so, they say, ignores variations in applicant pools and local demographics. In addition, focusing only on students who qualify for Pell Grants can lead to a decrease in financial aid available for students just above the Pell threshold, who “still need just as much financial aid as somebody who is just below,” Turner said. Instead, they propose that schools examine their potential applicant pool by five-percentile income segments and compare their enrollment against that breakdown to identify disparities and pursue interventions accordingly.

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