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January 28, 2023

UVA professor talks flaws in college process

By ELLIE PENATI | April 3, 2014

Sarah Turner, a professor of economics at the University of Virginia, spoke in Hodson Hall on March 27 as part of the JHU Social Policy Seminar Series. The talk, which was sponsored by the School of Public Health’s Institute for Health and Social Policy, delved into the details of Turner’s recent research into the behavior of low-income but high-achieving students pursuing higher education.

Turner received her undergraduate degree from Princeton University, where she majored in economics. She later obtained a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She has taught at University of Virginia since 1997, and currently is the chair of the Department of Economics.

Turner conducted her research project, entitled “Expanding College Opportunities for Low-Income, High-Achieving Students,” alongside Caroline Hoxby, a professor of economics at Stanford University.

“To present this work is really a very simple intervention designed to help students understand the costs and benefits of different college opportunities, and it also has a fairly complicated ‘big data’ component attached to it,” Turner said. 

Turner was inspired to conduct the study after discovering the startling number of low-income yet high-achieving students. According to Turner, while most college counselors had estimated there to be only about 4,000 college-bound students that fit into that category, the actual number is closer to 35,000 students.

In their research, Turner and Hoxby set out to find why it is that low-income yet high-achieving students across the country are less likely to apply to the top institutions of higher education than their more affluent peers, in addition to studying several possible interventions. 

“We are aiming to test this hypothesis of whether there are ways to give students more information about college choices and whether this is essentially going to expand their choice set going forward. You can think about this benefiting both the students, by having more options and being able to attend more resource-intensive institutions and also benefitting the colleges themselves because they are able to recruit students who are going to make really good use of these resources and later give back to the institutions and society,” Turner said.

Several explanations were introduced as to why low-income, high-achieving students apply mostly to less selective schools. 

Turner discussed briefly how low-income students and their families perceive selective, elite schools to be more expensive. She emphasized, however, that the truth is actually more complex. In fact, Turner cited studies that suggested that the cost of community colleges and non-selective institutions can actually be higher, in many if not most cases. 

Another explanation that Turner noted is the lack of information available to low-income students with regards to their opportunities for pursuing higher education. 

Turner also mentioned that cultural bias might prevent these types of students from pursuing admission to top caliber institutions.

“Are the patterns we observe in college choices really a function of information gaps, or are they reflecting preferences that may differ due to cultural backgrounds and family circumstances?” Turner asked. 

In a randomized and controlled study, Turner and her colleagues sent out survey materials to low-income families with high-achieving students.

The results were consistent with the group’s hypothesis. Turner and her colleagues found that these types of students misperceive the costs of attending selective schools and are thus deterred from applying due to application fees. Likewise, many face discouragement and cultural biases that are perpetuated by their parents. 

According to Turner, the most striking explanation for the phenomena suggested by the survey results was the lack of information available to these students.

“Low-income yet high achieving students lack the kind of advice and information that an expert counselor would give to high-achieving students,” Turner said.

Her findings revealed that many high-achieving yet low-income students are not aware of important parts of the college search process, such as how to qualify for financial aid. 

Most low-income students do not have counselors who are knowledgeable about applying to selective colleges, according to Turner. However, she also noted that the counselors are not entirely to blame, since the majority of the students they advise are not in the rare category of intellectually gifted students with lower-class backgrounds.

Turner also emphasized that it is difficult for even well-informed admission officers at top universities to find low-income, high-achieving students — especially those not enrolled in a magnet or charter school — because they are so widely scattered across the country. Furthermore, Turner added that it is not cost-effective for admissions officers to travel the nation recruiting low-income students. 

In an attempt to solve the problem, Turner sent out information packets to a sample of low-income families with high-achieving students. That component of her research project was funded in part by the Gates Foundation. 

“The materials or interventions are user-friendly and have very low per-student cost, but they are not simple as there is no standard set of materials that someone should photocopy for use in any college program, let alone inform all students...  The materials are student-specific because targeted information matters in college choice,” Turner said.

Turner concluded the seminar by discussing the necessity of establishing a long-term sustainability plan, not just for this atypical group of high-achieving but low-income students but also for the students who are just a rung or two below them on the ladder of high school achievement.

“We are not just focused on these very high achieving students but also recognize a need for a greater amount of information being available for those large amounts of lesser achieving kids throughout the nation,” Turner said.

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