Why Smart, Poor Students Should Go to America's Most Competitive Colleges (in a Graph)

Jordan Weissmann
May 8, 2013

One of the quieter crises in American education that we like to write about is the fact that most of the country's high-achieving, low-income high school students never bother applying to selective colleges. At first glance, this might seem like a bit of an obscure problem to focus on. But if you value meritocracy, or economic mobility, then getting smart-but-poor students into good schools should be somewhere near the top of your policy wish list.

Today, Brookings has a nice policy brief that helps explain why. Its title asks, "Should Everyone Go to College?" The short answer, essentially, is no. The longer answer is that students should only attend if they can get into a school that will offer them a decent return on their tuition dollars, which many colleges today simply don't. And broadly speaking, the more selective a school, the better its long-term value.

That's the trend illustrated in the Brookings graph below, which shows the annual return on investment at colleges grouped by how competitive their admissions standards are. Think of these figures as akin to how much your diploma would pay off each year if it were a Treasury bond. When you don't take financial aid into account, which this chart doesn't, public colleges (in red) usually provide better value than similarly competitive private colleges (in blue). More competitive colleges, for the most part, provide better value than their less competitive counterparts. 


When we say smart, low-income students don't apply to any "selective" schools, we're essentially talking about 200 to 250 colleges that range from the "very competitive" category to the "most competitive category" on the graph above. That fairly wide range of institutions includes everything from the University of Central Florida to Georgia Tech to Harvard. If this chart were to focus exclusively on poor students, the value gap between those schools and the rest would probably be even larger. Competitive colleges, especially private ones, tend to have bigger financial aid budgets, which in some cases make them the most affordable option for working and lower-class families. They also have higher graduation rates, and are better at getting their undergrads to commencement within four years, as opposed to the five or six years it often takes to finish at less prestigious institutions. Poor students are almost always at the greatest risk of dropping out, which makes the institutional support at top schools more valuable to them. And the more time it takes to graduate, of course, the more expensive, and less of a value, college becomes. Although this chart shows that even noncompetitive schools generally offer some bang for your tuition buck, PayScale has identified many where their graduates end up with a negative or near-zero return on investment. In short, their graduates would have been better off never attending college at all. 

The bottom line is, if we want higher ed to serve as a ladder to the middle class, we ought to be making sure the brightest minds from low-income families are going to the best schools they can get into. 

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