RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It is the season for college admissions letters to go out, which means students from across the country are frantically checking their mailboxes or inboxes in their email. If this year, though, is anything like years past, we'll continue to see a dearth of low-income students admitted to the most selective colleges. New social science research suggests a possible solution, and to explain, we're joined by NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam. Hi, Shankar.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: All right. What does the new research say?
VEDANTAM: Well, there have been a ton of attempts to try and increase the representation of low-income students in college, Rachel. I was speaking to Michael Bastedo. He's a professor of education at the University of Michigan. He told me a lot of efforts to get more low-income students to college has focused on the students themselves. How do you get them to apply? How do you get them to follow through? Along with Nicholas Bowman at the University of Iowa, Bastedo thought it might also be useful to focus on what's happening with college admissions officers.
MARTIN: All right, so how did they go about studying that?
VEDANTAM: Well, they recruited more than 300 college admissions officers from over 150 selective colleges and ran an experiment on them. Some admissions officers were given the kind of information you typically see on a college application, including details of the applicant's high school. Other officers were given slightly different information.
MICHAEL BASTEDO: In the other group, they had much more detailed information about the high school, such as the percentage of students on free and reduced lunch, the number of APs that are offered and the average score on an AP exam. So they had much better idea of what the opportunities were that were available at those high schools.
MARTIN: So this is all about giving more context to these admissions officers. So if one of these people looks at an application and it shows that this low-income student only took one AP course, for example, this context would let them know that that's not because that student was lazy or not ambitious. It was just because there was only one AP class offered in the school.
VEDANTAM: Exactly. So there was much more by way of context. Everyone intuitively knows that if a student goes to a school with few opportunities or is surrounded by peers who are struggling academically, it isn't fair to evaluate that student as you would a student who goes to an elite wealthy school that offers a ton of opportunities. Bastedo found that even when you provide exactly the same kind of information to the two groups of admissions officers but you provide one much more by way of context, this makes a huge difference.
BASTEDO: Even though they had all the same information about their grades and test scores and extracurricular activities and their essays, the admissions officers were about 25 percent more likely to admit a low-income applicant than they would be if they had more limited high school information.
MARTIN: So 25 percent - that's significant, right?
VEDANTAM: It's a huge amount. Now, you know, information about the high schools that students are coming from are already in college applications, Rachel. What this study shows is that providing what may seem like superfluous information - more detail, more context about that high school - it isn't superfluous. It actually makes a difference. One solution, of course, here is for national organizations to provide this kind of information routinely about all high schools and have this be folded into college applications.
MARTIN: Like a separate form for you to submit.
VEDANTAM: Exactly, exactly. And the other thing is for high schools to themselves provide more of this kind of information. The tricky thing here is that schools may be unwilling to talk in detail about their limitations to paint themselves in a poor light. Paradoxically, this can end up hurting the chances of students from those schools to get into the best colleges.
MARTIN: NPR's Shankar Vedantam, he is our social science correspondent. You can also hear him on his podcast. It's called Hidden Brain. Hey, Shankar, thanks so much.
VEDANTAM: Thanks, Rachel.
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