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Why bright low-income kids aren't going to top colleges
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Many of America's brightest kids miss out on going to the best schools for one reason they don't have good information about what top colleges offer, and what they cost. - photo by Lane Anderson
A prestigious Ivy League school can cost upwards of $50,000 a year. That's out of reach for many people especially low-income families. But what some of those families don't know is that with financial aid, they can attend those schools for $10,000 or less.

Attending a top college can be a life-changer for bright low-income kids. But many of them end up at schools with low graduation rates because they are misinformed about cost and the college experience, according to research from economics professors Caroline Hoxby of Stanford and Christopher Avery of Harvard.

They conducted a study on 12,000 students who scored in the top 10 percent on the SAT or ACT exams who come from families that fall in the bottom third of the country's income scale, but didn't go to selective colleges.

Many of them were "undermatched," or went to schools that were below their achievement level, because they were misinformed, or believed that "college is college." It's a problem that's entirely fixable, according to the authors.

For example, when asked why they did not apply to selective liberal arts colleges schools that offer a broad selection of arts and science courses, including math and often engineering programs, student responses ranged from "I'm not liberal" to "I don't like art/art related subjects."

"Liberal arts is for people who aren't good at math," wrote one respondent. "Limited future career options," wrote another.

As a result, these students are attending schools with fewer resources at a higher price.

"Low-income higher achievers tend not to apply to selective colleges despite being extremely likely to be admitted with financial aid so generous that they would pay less than they do to attend the non-selective schools they usually attend," wrote the study authors.

But there's also a cost in talent. About 25,000 to 30,000 of America's top-achieving students aren't going to challenging schools.

Most high-income, high-achieving students do what you'd expect, according to the study authors. They apply to some reach schools and some safety schools, and often end up at a school where the median test store is similar to theirs.

Smart poor kids do things much differently. Over 50 percent of them apply to no schools whose test scores are similar to theirs, and many apply only to a single school often one that is not selective. The authors estimate that only 8 percent of high-scoring low-income kids behave the same as rich ones, by applying to multiple reach and safety schools.

When smart low-income kids do apply, they are just as likely to get into good schools as rich ones. Top colleges usually have enough financial aid to make it possible for high-achieving kids to attend.

"Each year, 10,000 or 20,000 of Americas brightest high-school graduates dont go to a great college," wrote Matthew Yglesias in Slate, "not because they cant afford one but because they dont realize they should apply."