Two opinion pieces in the New York Times today address an analysis released earlier in the month documenting the relatively smaller proportion of academically talented low-income high school students attending top colleges as compared to their higher income peers. Here’s an excerpt of the Times’ coverage of the report:

Many top low-income students instead attend community colleges or four-year institutions closer to their homes, the study found. The students often are unaware of the amount of financial aid available or simply do not consider a top college because they have never met someone who attended one, according to the study’s authors, other experts and high school guidance counselors.

In today’s Times, Claire Vaye Watkins, assistant professor of English at Bucknell, has a piece suggesting colleges need to recruit more effectively and also cites the lack of familiarity with leading institutions as a barrier:

By the time they’re ready to apply to colleges, most kids from families like mine — poor, rural, no college grads in sight — know of and apply to only those few universities to which they’ve incidentally been exposed. Your J.V. basketball team goes to a clinic at University of Nevada, Las Vegas; you apply to U.N.L.V. Your Amtrak train rolls through San Luis Obispo, Calif.; you go to Cal Poly. I took a Greyhound bus to visit high school friends at the University of Nevada, Reno, and ended up at U.N.R. a year later, in 2003.

The Times also published a piece by David Leonhardt today documenting a successful effort to get more information to low-income students as a way of increasing their attendance levels at top schools:

The students receiving the [information] packages were mostly high-achieving, low-income students, and they were part of a randomized experiment. The researchers sending the packets were trying to determine whether most poor students did not attend selective colleges because they did not want to, or because they did not understand that they could. The results are now in, and they suggest that basic information can substantially increase the number of low-income students who apply to, attend and graduate from top colleges.

While we haven’t looked specifically at low-income students, we do know that OCW can play a significant role in helping students who are unfamiliar with the experience of attending a top institution develop the confidence to attend. Two years ago, we documented the story of Mat Peterson, an MIT student who never imagined attending MIT until he starting using the OCW site in high school:

Working with the material on OCW gave Peterson confidence in his ability to study at the MIT level, but even more importantly, provided a window into an instructional approach that appealed to him. “The objective was to learn how to do things, not just plug data into formulas,” he said. On OCW, Peterson saw how problem-solving approaches were used throughout the MIT curriculum.
Prior to looking at OCW, MIT had not even occurred to Peterson as a college option. No one from Klein Oak High School had ever gotten into MIT, and Peterson had expected he would attend one of the Texas state schools. “It had just seemed so out of reach beforehand,” he said, describing the impact of the site. “It wasn’t even on the table.”

We’ve also developed some quantitative data supporting OCW’s impact on recruiting and student confidence. Along with representatives of OCW projects at Johns Hopkins University and the Open University of the Netherlands, MIT OCW contributed to a paper published in the October 2012 issue of The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning that addressed OCW’s impact on the recruitment of both traditional and nontraditional students.