Missing the Fit: Low-income Students and College Success

Missing the Fit: Low Income Students and College Success

Recently, the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution issued a report addressing the problematic under-matching of low-income students to the most selective colleges in America. This means capable and deserving students are deprived of often less expensive and remarkable educational opportunities. Early data also reflect that low-income students who do enroll in the most selective institutions progress more effectively through the higher educational institution they select.

The solution suggested by this research is straightforward enough: provide greater informational outreach about elite colleges, the admissions process and financial aid to these students. The increased information will likely result in both higher enrollment at and graduation from America's elite institutions by low-income students and could be achieved at the relatively reasonable cost of $6 per student.

This new report is consistent with a long line of books, reports and articles that demonstrate low-income students do not attend colleges commensurate with their capacities, assuming they attend at all.

The federal government has also focused on informational asymmetries in the college application and college selection processes. The Scorecard and the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet are but two examples of the effort to facilitate comparisons and improve student decision-making with respect to college choice. Information will, in essence, nudge students into making better decisions, a broader theme of this Administration.

I agree that there is under-matching. I agree that more information -- particularly if clearly presented -- is better than less information. I agree that financial aid packaging at highly selective colleges may be better and less costly for a student than at state colleges or other less selective private institutions. I agree that getting more low- income students to and through college is augmented if more of these students attend America's elite institutions of higher learning.

What troubles me is that even if the many talented students from low-income families were admitted to our top-ranked colleges based on added disclosure/information, that does not answer the question of whether these students will be comfortable at the institutions that select them and maximize the educational opportunities presented.

This entire conversation about access, quality, value and success in higher education within the academy, the public arena and government totally misses one critical factor that contributes to student success: fit. The term itself suggests something unimportant -- like identifying one's shoe size. But, we all know that shoes have to fit correctly to be comfortable enough to walk in; yet, we accept or ignore imperfect fits when choosing educational institutions, assuming that colleges, even elite ones, are fungible.

Attending Harvard is different from attending Haverford; attending Stanford is different from attending Smith --- and these are all highly selective colleges. Attending Southern Vermont College is different from attending Southern Connecticut State. Attending Newbury College is vastly different than attending Northeastern University. This is not to suggest that well-qualified low-income students should attend non-elite colleges; what I am saying is that whether one attends a selective or non-selective college, and we have over 7,000 educational institutions in America, fit matters.

Let's look at a clothing analogy. Suppose one goes to a massive shopping mall looking to purchase a blue sweater. Within the mall, there may be 30 stores selling blue sweaters, and one needs to assess which stores are more likely to have the desired item -- based on design, shade of blue, size, price, fabric, style and quality of both the item and shopping experience.

The key feature to this shopping trip is actually trying on the items that might be purchased. Even Internet vendors allow for easy returns because an item is ill-fitting. "Fit," howsoever defined, is key and finding the right "fit" is often not so easy.

And so it is with colleges. While buying an education is not like buying sweaters and shoes, finding the right fit -- not just the right price of attendance or the right academic program or the right graduation rate or the right ranking -- requires that we address many current gaps within the educational pipeline. The solution is both more expensive and more complex than information and a few dollars. There is no $6 solution to the fit problem.

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