Research News

Research outlines inequalities in high school students’ college searches

Female Student Talking To School Counselor.

Instead of attending small sessions in the fall with college admissions representatives, less-advantaged students are more likely to attend "instant-admission" events in the spring, results of UB research indicate.


Published May 31, 2018 This content is archived.

headshot of Megan Holland.
“In an age where the name of the college you attend has more power, particularly for those traditionally underrepresented at such institutions, these differences are concerning. ”
Megan Holland, research assistant professor
Graduate School of Education

A serious gap continues to exist between how advantaged and disadvantaged high school students choose where they go to college, according to a UB education professor whose research shows how vulnerable these lower-income students are to slick marketing tactics that lure students into colleges that may or may not be a good fit.

“This marketing preys on low-income and first-generation college students’ insecurities,” said Megan Holland, director of the educational administration master’s program and research assistant professor in educational leadership and policy in the Graduate School of Education.

“These students want to go to college, but may not really believe that they are ‘college material,’” Holland said. “When a college comes along and sends a student a ‘preferred student’ free application, or includes a small scholarship with every offer of admission, it makes students think that the colleges really want and believe in them, something they may not have found in their interactions with school counselors.”

Holland, who since 2015 has been researching the disparities in how students from affluent and educated families choose colleges compared with lower-income students without college-educated parents, identified several dangers:

  • Less-advantaged students who often come from families without college-educated parents often attended “instant admission” college-recruitment events.

Instead of carefully considering their options at college representative events — small information sessions held at high schools in the fall and conducted by admission officers with representatives of colleges and universities of different selectivity levels — less-accomplished students were encouraged to look to these “instant admissions” events, held in the spring after the admissions deadlines for many colleges. Many made their decisions based on the information and sales pitches they heard that day.

“Less and non-selective colleges attended these events and offered admissions decisions on the spot,” Holland said. “However, many students did not know anything about the colleges they were applying to.

“Students were very taken with colleges when they offered them acceptances, and enjoyed feeling wanted by the schools because they lacked connections with their counselors, who tended to depress their educational aspirations,” she said.

“So when a college admissions officer, or college (via an email or free application offer) said that they were interested, they were very excited about the school. However, this school may not have been a great fit.”

  • Holland’s research also found “unequal” ways high schools brokered social connections that provided access to college information through peers, counselors and college admission officers.

Holland studied the college-recruitment practices that occurred at two high schools. About 65 percent of students in her sample whose parents had a college education attended a college representative visit, a more balanced, measured and rational procedure for finding a college or university. But only 48 percent of students’ whose parents did not attend college attended one of these more traditional representative visits.

Holland concluded the opposite was true for the so-called “instant decision days.”

“More advantaged students possessed the cultural knowledge needed to seek out information about college representative visits and decide on their own accord (or with the encouragement of their parents) to attend,” she wrote in “Divergent Paths to College,” the forthcoming book based on her research

“In contrast, for the instant decision days, counselors specifically sought out those students behind in the process and encouraged them to attend, taking a more active role in brokering this contact.

“Lower-achieving students were not encouraged earlier on to attend the college representative visits through this type of personal encouragement; students had to seek out these earlier opportunities,” Holland wrote in the chapter “Opportunities or Opportunistic: Marketing in Higher Education.”

“However, it was the college representative visits that seemed to offer more opportunities for students to learn about schools (prior to making the decision to apply), which could help them get a head start on the college process, and also potentially increase their social capital through a personal connection to an admissions officer, which might influence their admissions chances.”   

  • This discrepancy in how advantaged and less-advantaged students applied to colleges and universities may have ultimately influenced the colleges these students attended.

Among the students she interviewed, those “who had at least one college-educated parent submitted an average of two and a half applications to most or highly competitive colleges,” Holland concluded, “while those without a college-educated parent submitted an average of one application to a most or highly competitive college.”

Overall, 22 percent of students with a college-educated parent attended a most or highly competitive college, while only 10 percent of those without a college-educated parent did, according to Holland’s research.

“In an age where the name of the college you attend has more power, particularly for those traditionally underrepresented at such institutions,” Holland wrote in her conclusions, “these differences are concerning.”

Holland’s research was funded by a 2015 National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship. Her book, the full title “Divergent Paths to College: Race, Class and Inequality in High Schools,” is due to be published in early 2019 by Rutgers University Press.

Holland’s book is based on a two-year field study at two racially and socioeconomically diverse high schools. She interviewed 89 students at these schools and followed a sub-sample over their junior and senior years while they completed the college-application process, and then into their college years. She also interviewed school counselors, teachers and administrators at the two schools, as well as college admissions officers and private college counselors.

“All colleges engage in marketing and recruiting in one way or another, and sometimes this can be beneficial and expose students to new schools,” Holland said. “The problem comes when students are basing costly educational decisions on marketing, not on good, quality, objective information. Both high schools and colleges have a responsibility to provide students with that information.”