Every year on May 1, high-achieving high school seniors around the country face the final deadline for college commitment. For many middle- and upper-middle-class students, the date marks the end of standardized-test taking, application essay writing, campus visits, and financial aid planning — the complex process otherwise known as the college admissions game.This spring, the conversation about the ever-more-fraught competition for a spot in one of America’s top universities has shifted to an often-overlooked group, thanks to research by Christopher Avery, Roy E. Larsen Professor of Public Policy and Management at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). If admission to elite colleges is a game, Avery and his longtime colleague Caroline Hoxby found, it’s one that low-income students with high potential are too often sitting out.In a National Bureau of Economic Research paper presented in March, Avery and Hoxby, an economist at Stanford University, reported that promising but poor high school students (those who scored in the top 10 percent among SAT takers and whose families make $41,472 a year or less) often do not apply to any selective universities — despite the fact that those colleges, on average, would be more affordable than less-selective schools thanks to their robust financial aid policies.“These low-income students’ application behavior differs greatly from that of their high-income counterparts who have similar achievement,” they wrote. “The latter group generally follows the advice to apply to a few ‘par’ colleges, a few ‘reach’ colleges, and a couple of ‘safety’ schools.”In short, Avery and Hoxby wrote, low-income high performers “exhibit behavior that is typical of students of their income rather than typical of students of their achievement.”The paper spurred a wave of media coverage, much of it critical of the selective colleges Avery and Hoxby studied. If poor students weren’t applying to good schools, the logic went, then it must be the fault of those colleges for not trying hard enough to attract them. In some corners, their work was taken as a sign that the country’s higher education system was broken, or as evidence that growing wealth inequality was stifling opportunity for young people at the bottom of the economic ladder.“I can see why some people take the paper that way, but I don’t see it that way,” Avery said. “We know the colleges are trying really hard to attract these students, but they’re facing a problem that is systematically very challenging. This problem is too large for a handful of selective colleges to solve on their own.”High-achieving, low-income students often live far from major urban centers and from areas with high concentrations of colleges, such as the East Coast, he said. Colleges can still reach students through mailings, “but these students are getting piles and piles of brochures,” Avery said. “They may have heard of Harvard, but there are lots of other great colleges that they haven’t heard of, and they can’t distinguish within this pile where to apply.”Compounding the issue, he said, is the fact that many of these students are the first in their families who plan to go to college. Without any insider knowledge of selective colleges from friends or family members, low-income, geographically isolated students often don’t know what their options are, Avery said — a theme that has appeared in his research on college admission over the past two decades.Avery, who attended Harvard College and received his doctorate at Stanford, hadn’t intended to study higher education when he joined the HKS faculty in 1993.“I was trained in game theory, which is about strategic interactions and incentives,” he said. “I realized the college admissions system had evolved into a situation where there was a lot of strategy involved.”At HKS, Avery began working with a mid-career student, Andrew Fairbanks, whose interest in the economics of college admissions had been sparked by his time as an admissions officer at Wesleyan University. In 2003, with co-author Richard Zeckhauser, HKS’s Frank P. Ramsey Professor of Political Economy, Avery and Fairbanks published “The Early Admissions Game,” the first academic book to fully explore the growing practice of early admission.After studying half a million applications to 14 elite colleges, the authors found, somewhat controversially, that applying early gave students a documentable advantage over peers who applied by “regular decision” deadlines.“We were estimating that at a lot of the colleges we studied, applying early was the same as increasing your SAT score by 100 points,” Avery said. More important, he added, “was that experienced college counselors at private schools already knew this. In a sense, it wasn’t a level playing field.”Since the book’s publication in 2004, many colleges have stepped up their efforts to recruit students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds by raising awareness of their early decision and financial aid programs. Harvard, with its Financial Aid Initiative, was at the forefront of the movement, Avery said.Still, colleges and students alike have opportunities to boost the numbers, he said. Selective colleges that lack broad name recognition can tap alumni to reach out to high school students in isolated towns where admissions officers can’t afford to travel. Low-income students can request application fee waivers, allowing them to apply to several more colleges than they otherwise would and to then compare their financial aid packages.“It’s like looking at a couple of houses,” Avery said. “You may need more than one option.”Working with the Strategic Data Project at Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research, Avery advises fellows who analyze data for some of the nation’s largest public school districts. Through the project, he has become more involved in tracking students of all achievement levels as they move from high school into college — or not.“I now see that there are a lot of students who could go to good colleges but who don’t go to college at all,” he said. One of the Strategic Data Project’s goals, he said, is to help school districts track former students to see how many actually pursue higher education — instead of relying on self-reported plans — and to develop interventions to help graduating students follow through on their college goals.Collaborating with researchers from across Harvard, from the Graduate School of Education (GSE) to the Economics Department, has broadened his work over the years, he said.“There’s a growing community here of people who are really dedicated to these problems,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out what we as researchers can do to lower the barriers that have been keeping talented people from making it to college and graduating from college.”
Nine weeks ago, Tulane University football players had many things to be excited about. They were picked to finish third in the Conference USA preseason poll and were returning a talented crew of upperclassmen. Players were even discussing a possible return to a bowl game.”There are no specific goals, it’s just to be a champion,” Tulane quarterback Lester Ricard said in a preseason press release. “Whether that’s conference champion or some type of bowl. My expectations are high. I feel like we can go 13-0, max it out.”In the beginning, expectations were high and players were pumped. However no one was expecting Hurricane Katrina.When the hurricane hit eight weeks ago, it forced Tulane athletes and students to relocate for the semester. Green Wave athletes suddenly had different goals in mind. “We’re not going to use being a homeless football team as a reason to not try to succeed on the field,” Tulane head coach Chris Scelfo said in a press release. “We’re playing for a lot of people and the pressure is high, but our coaches and players are all up for the challenge. We are representing our university and our city and that gives us inspiration.”Though heads may have initially hung low, Tulane football players and other athletes have been grateful with their new homes. The football team has relocated to Ruston, La., and enrolled at Louisiana Tech University. Six other teams — men’s basketball, women’s swimming and diving, women’s volleyball, women’s soccer and men and women’s tennis have moved to Texas A&M University. Texas Tech has welcomed baseball and women’s basketball squads, while Southern Methodist University has admitted men and women’s golf. Both cross country teams will not compete this year.It’s been a rough two months for these athletes. They no longer need a win to be satisfied. Most players have been thrilled through simply competing.”Our team opened with an exhibition meet this weekend and that was the best four hours of therapy this group of student-athlete and coaches could have gotten,” Tulane head swim coach Daniella Irle said Monday in an e-mail. “Eight weeks ago we were not sure we were going to have an athletic department let alone a season. In these past eight weeks I can honestly say that this staff has been truly challenged both professionally and personally, as have our student-athletes. It has been very difficult at times but we also have had some very gratifying and humbling moments as well. I have always felt that the swimming and diving community possessed unusual generosity and camaraderie and I really know that to be true.”It may have taken a new home for these athletes to finally find the true meaning of sports — the thrill of competition — but they have been in a struggle to find ways to win. Though once tabbed the nation’s No. 1 defense after allowing an average of 176 yards per game, the football team has been in a rut, winning only two games this season. Tulane volleyball has only managed to post a 2-8 record midway through the season. Last year, the team won seven of its first 10 games.The Green Wave women’s soccer team has only posted one victory in 11 games, although it did not have an impressive record last season (7-10-2).All sports teams have found their schedules shortened. They have also been forced to play all games on the road.It’s a grim situation, but their seasons would not have taken place without the help of Texas A&M, SMU, Texas Tech and Louisiana Tech.”Our thanks go out to so many people who have made this season happen for us,” Irle said. “So many people have come together to help us provide our ladies with a season that is similar to what they had beforehand. [Everyone who has donated is] the reason we got off to a great start this year and the reason we are even in business right now. Our budgets are really non-existent at this time, so these gifts have been our only source of securing items and a sense of normalcy for our young women.”Though winning may not be a priority for Tulane, as it is for other schools, Green Wave athletes are satisfied by just competing, and that is what athletics should be about.
After a season that didn’t include a single Big Ten victory, UW women’s tennis coach Patti Henderson decided to call it quits Monday.After 13 seasons with Wisconsin, Henderson is resigning from her position to pursue interests outside of collegiate athletics. Her last day of employment will be May 31, but a national search for her replacement is already underway.”It is with deep gratitude and appreciation to the University of Wisconsin Athletic Department and Director of Athletics Barry Alvarez that I step away from my position as the women’s tennis coach and follow my heart to pursue my new dream,” Henderson said in a statement.”I offer many thanks to the athletic program for providing me a training ground as rich and vibrant as all great relationships,” she added. “This was a relationship in which I was able to learn and to grow and has now completed its natural cycle. To this unfolding, I am forever grateful to Barry.”And Alvarez said he was grateful for everything Henderson has done for the university over the years.”I’m very appreciative of Patti’s years of service to the University of Wisconsin,” Alvarez said. “Patti was committed to providing a great experience for her student-athletes and that commitment was reflected in their successes on the court and in the classroom. We wish her well as she begins a new chapter in her life.”Despite her struggles in the past season, Henderson’s teams were some of the best in school history.In only her second season (1995-96), Henderson led the Badgers to the school’s only Big Ten title, a No. 7 national ranking and a NCAA regional win. Over her UW career, Henderson coached four players to seven All-American awards, while 10 of her players have won 20 Big Ten awards.In 1996 and 2002, she was honored by her conference peers as the Big Ten Coach of the Year.A possible replacement for Henderson’s position could come within the program as assistant coach Doanh Wang remains with the team. Although this past season was Wang’s first with UW, he has coached in the Madison area for several years. In three seasons coaching at Edgewood College, Wang was twice named Coach of the Year.In her statement, Henderson thanked Wang for his contributions in what was a difficult season for the entire team.”I am especially indebted to Doanh Wang, my assistant coach,” she said. “Rare is the individual who will walk away from a sure thing to take a chance at the unknown. Doanh not only took this leap of faith, he backed it up with a hunger, passion and commitment only an open heart and soul can allow.”Henderson also gave Wisconsin her best wishes.”I leave UW, with love in my heart for Wisconsin athletics and a knowing of the commitment to excellence this athletic department strives for,” Henderson said.”I wish all the best to the University of Wisconsin and the athletic department.”