A few years ago, Harvard University startled the academic world and many of the rest of us by offering what many would call a form of class-based affirmative action.
Esentially, the elite university offered a free college education to high-achieving students whose families earned less than $40,000 a year. Other elite schools, including Yale, Princeton and Stanford, have made similar offers in various ways, and Harvard, among others, has since raised the bar to family income of $60,000 a year.
How has it worked out? Unfortunately, not as well as many had hoped.
One study of the Harvard initiative's first year found that the number of students whose family income fell below the threshold increased by only about 15 students in a class of about 1,650 freshmen.
University officials at Harvard and other colleges with similar offers lament that there simply is not a large enough pool of high-achieving low-income students and that there's not much colleges can do to change that.
But that widespread belief is disputed by a new study by economists Caroline Hoxby at Stanford University and Christopher Avery at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
They looked at the 236 colleges and universities that are viewed as "most competitive" in Barron's Profiles of American Colleges and at high school seniors whose grades were in the top 4 percent nationwide and whose college aptitude test scores were in the top 10 percent of test-takers.
The analysis published in December finds a surprisingly abundant supply of high-achieving low-income students who are not applying to selective colleges, Hoxby and Avery wrote, even though "selective institutions would often cost them less, owing to generous financial aid, than the resource-poor two-year and non-selective four-year institutions to which they actually apply."
And in case you were wondering, the low-income high achievers who do apply to selective institutions are admitted and graduate at high rates, the study points out.
Why are low-income students and their families passing up these opportunities? More than anything else, Hoxby and Avery conclude, the students simply don't know what they're missing. They don't know because nobody is telling them.
Some 70 percent of gifted low-income students came from 15 large metropolitan areas, the study found. Most attend highly respected public magnet schools where elite colleges tend to have long-established pipelines of contacts with high school counselors and other informal talent scouts.
Students at such schools also are more likely to talk about and apply to elite colleges as an option than students in schools, families or communities who view such colleges as faraway havens for snooty rich kids.
"The students whom (colleges) see are the students who apply," Hoxby told NPR science editor Shankar Vedantam in a recent interview. "And if a student doesn't apply to any selective college or university, it's impossible for admissions staff to see that they are out there."
As remedies, colleges need to broaden their searches, publicity and outreach to more cities and smaller towns. The high schools and local communities also owe it to their promising students to improve their own outreach.
The success or failure of income-based outreach by elite colleges is important to the rest of us, too.
With the Supreme Court looking at the future of affirmative action by universities, income-based diversity efforts in any form excite those of us who have been looking for alternatives to race-based affirmative action.
The Harvard model strives to offer the merit-based model that critics of affirmative action have idealized as a return to merit-based academic rewards.
"The Hoxby-Avery study offers further evidence that universities care more about racial diversity than economic diversity," said Richard Kahlenberg,senior fellow at The Century Foundation and a long-time advocate of class-based outreach. "They don't seem to have the same appetite to go out and recruit low-income students of all races."
Or to paraphrase the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., we need to judge students, not by the color of their skin but by the content of their academic achievement.