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What If Everyone Applied to College?

Noah Smith
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What If Everyone Applied to College?

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The U.S. has a college opportunity problem. University graduates earn higher lifetime wages and experience lower unemployment rates, but only about a third of the population obtains a bachelor’s degree by age 29. While a higher education isn’t the right life path for everyone, there’s evidence that lots of people who should be getting degrees aren’t getting them.

So here’s an idea: How about making college applications automatic?

It’s hard to overstate how damaging educational inequity can be. Left unchecked, it threatens to entrench class divisions and delegitimize the entire U.S. economic system. Consider the deepening disadvantages of minority and low-income students: Low-income students with good test scores are less likely to finish a degree than high-income students with bad scores.

Some believe there’s a simple solution: eliminate college tuition. Everyone knows it has soared in the last few decades. If low-income people are being shut out, price seems like an obvious factor to address. But thanks to need-based financial aid from both universities and the government, net public-university tuition is already very low for students from low-income families:

Eliminating tuition could thus even increase the college completion gap, since most of the benefit would flow to students with above-average family incomes. Addressing costs for room and board and textbooks, which loom much larger for the lower income brackets, would do more to equalize opportunity.

Policy also needs to address a huge and often ignored college expense -- opportunity cost. Well-off kids don’t have to work to support their families, while poor kids often do. And kids from families with stable incomes and good health insurance are less likely to have to drop out to take care of sick relatives. These inequalities will never be fully eliminated, but they can be reduced by greater income support and universal health insurance.

Yet barriers other than cost also keep kids from realizing their educational potential. Economists Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery report that “the vast majority of very high-achieving students who are low-income do not apply to any selective college or university.” And economists Sandra Black, Kalena Cortes, and Jane Arnold Lincove found that even controlling for income, scholastic ability and many other factors, Hispanic high school students are significantly less likely than other ethnic groups to apply to college -- even when they receive information about the application process. This suggests that universities need to conduct more aggressive outreach campaigns to low-income and Hispanic students, and that high schools should systematically encourage them to set their sights higher.

Finally, there’s the difficulty and cost of applying to college. Sending out multiple applications costs money -- usually around $50 each -- and is a complex and bewildering process. Applying for need-based financial aid requires submitting the FAFSA form and other paperwork. Students with well-educated, high-earning parents have an enormous advantage in that process.

There’s no easy fix. So-called nudges, such as helping people complete the FAFSA, have worked only at small scale, but failed at larger scales. Something more is needed.

The best solution might be to make the college application process universal. All public universities and colleges nationwide would use a single free application form, similar to the application used by all California state schools. High schools would give students time to fill out the application form and the FAFSA (though they would also be able to work on it at home), along with some lessons to prepare them for the process.  Students could choose not to apply, but the default would be for everyone to do so.

Obviously, every college can’t review every student’s application. So students would submit a short list of top choices -- say, one to five. Colleges would evaluate these applicants first. (This would prevent public universities from using acceptance rates to boost their prestige, but those metrics were never very helpful in assessing quality anyway.) Eventually, the system might even employ matching algorithms to find good fits between students and schools, as is now done with medical residency programs.

This system would make applying for college -- even if only the local community college -- the default for all high school students. The application process would go from being an opaque, complex, expensive process to a simple, universal piece of the high school experience. It would go a long way toward leveling the playing field between children of low-income parents and their wealthier peers. By doing so, it would make American society fairer, increase economic opportunity, and help discover some of the hidden talent that is currently going to waste.

To contact the author of this story: Noah Smith at nsmith150@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.

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