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Redlining Education: How Universities Exclude Students Based on Where They Live

Excerpted from Place, Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America by Sheryll Cashin. Copyright 2014. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.

Selective schools begin excluding achievers in lower-opportunity places through their recruitment process. It starts with standardized tests. Schools use them as a search tool (in addition to over-relying on them as indicators of “merit”). They can buy mailing lists of high-scoring students from the College Board, which administers the SAT, and from ACT, Inc. Highly selective schools tend to prefer the SAT over the ACT. If they buy mailing lists only from the College Board, they will miss all high-scoring students that take only the ACT. The ACT is favored by students in the South and middle of the country, while the SAT is favored on the East and West coasts. Catharine B. Hill, president of Vassar, and Gordon Winston of Williams College estimate that selective schools miss more than six thousand very high scoring, low-income students each year simply because of their SAT-only search policies. A school with an SAT-only lens would miss more than half of the highest-ability students in Alabama and Michigan.

Geographic bias continues with outreach. Obviously a college cannot send admissions officers to visit all 42,000 high schools in America. Choices must be made, and selective institutions tend to visit high schools that are reliable feeders or are located where plenty of high achievers from other schools can also get to a presentation. If a college recruiter wants to reach a critical mass of high achievers in one trip, the most efficient and well-travelled route is to areas dense with college-educated parents: urban counties in southern New England, the Mid-Atlantic region, southern Florida, or coastal California or large cities like Chicago, Houston, Dallas, or Atlanta.

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Hill and Winston suggest that such traditional recruitment patterns explain why selective private schools fall short in their representation of low-income, high-ability students. They focus on parts of the country with small numbers of low-income achievers and neglect regions with a lot more of them. Midwest and mountain states produce 21.2 percent of low-income high achievers nationwide, while New England is home to only 3.5 percent of them.

Place influences not just where colleges choose to recruit but also where achievers choose to apply. Hoxby and Avery set out to understand why thousands of low-income high achievers do not apply to selective schools that would cost less because they can offer more financial aid. Low-income achievers who lived in neighborhoods with higher numbers of college graduates tended to behave like higher-income achievers. They applied to safety schools, schools with median test scores that mirrored their own, and to some stretch schools, and they persisted to graduation after enrolling, as those with “college knowledge” typically do. Hoxby and Avery labeled these students “achievement typical” because their approach to college was typical of non-poor achievers. More than 70 percent of achievement-typical students came from just fifteen large urban areas, each of which is home to one or several selective colleges. These places included the usual suspects: San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, Chicago, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Most of the low-income achievement-typical students came from a small number of high schools—magnet or independent schools that admit students on a competitive basis.

Hoxby and Avery concluded that many selective colleges were “searching under the lamppost.” They look for low-income students where the college is located rather than where these students can be found in large numbers. The low-income achievers under the streetlamp are already more likely to apply to and attend selective colleges. Admissions officers spend much time reaching out to the lamppost high schools that have already been cherry-picked by their competitors, contributing to the perception that the pool of disadvantaged achievers is miniscule while doing little to increase the college-attending behavior of strivers who live elsewhere. One anecdote illuminates the narrow lens of elite admissions offices. The Yale College Class of 2009 was drawn from roughly 900 high schools, even though economists at Harvard conclude that there are more than 10,500 schools that offer students of sufficient caliber to enter Harvard (and, presumably, Yale).

Hoxby and Avery found that low-income achievers not privileged to live in neighborhoods thick with college graduates or to attend a school where college knowledge is pervasive behaved differently. They applied to fewer schools, and the vast majority did not apply to selective schools. Hoxby and Avery labeled them “income typical.” On average, only 3.8 percent of an income-typical student’s peers were also high achieving, compared to 11.2 percent for achievement-typical students. Income-typical students also tended to live in neighborhoods where few people attended a selective college. Given where they lived and went to school, their probability of meeting a teacher, counselor, schoolmate, or friend who attended a selective school was negligible.

Peers also matter. A student who does not have rich parents that can pay a private consultant to help them negotiate the admissions process desperately needs good advice and information. Every high school in America has a valedictorian, but low-income ones tend to be in lower-opportunity schools, where they receive worse guidance than their lower-performing classmates because high school counselors tend to focus on colleges and practices that fit the general population. Recent valedictorians from public high schools report that their school counselors were “lousy,” “incompetent,” or “woefully lacking.” Without good guidance, low-income achievers tend to pursue colleges that are already familiar to them and the people around them, reinforcing the influence of place and class.

Low-income achievers, in particular, need information tailored to help them overcome their worries about debt. Hoxby and economist Sarah Turner discovered that a well-designed brochure that cost only $6 per student to produce and mail induced income-typical achievers to apply to selective, better-resourced schools. If a selective school is sincere about achieving socioeconomic diversity, then it must recruit differently to find the many poor achievers that do exist.

Hoxby and Avery’s income-typical achievers were much more geographically dispersed than achievement-typical students. About 80 percent of them were white. Place disadvantages poor whites differently than it does low-income students of color, who are more likely to grow up in high-poverty neighborhoods. It would be counterproductive to engage in an “Oppression Olympics,” comparing the obstacles of growing up poor, rural, and white to the challenges of overcoming concentrated poverty. The truth is that low-income students of all colors—even high-achieving ones, even valedictorians—are being overlooked by selective campuses because of geography. Place creates disadvantages that are different in kind than racial discrimination. Place is not a proxy for race. Race is a social construct, place is a physical one. They are distinct phenomena that need to be understood on their own terms. In college admissions, perhaps unintentionally, place often operates to exclude. Meanwhile, admissions officers who think about race are not typically using it, as in the past, as a basis for exclusion. For an underrepresented minority, race can be a plus factor that enhances that person’s chances of being accepted.

Excerpted from Place, Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America by Sheryll Cashin. Copyright 2014. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.

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