Jan. 9, 2003
Vol. 22 No. 7

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    Early economic advantages influence college attendance

    By William Harms
    News Office

    Special government scholarship programs do little to boost college attendance among disadvantaged students because abilities formed relatively early in life have a much greater influence on whether students attend college, according to a new study by University researchers.

    Federal government’s scholarship programs mainly benefit the children of non-disadvantaged families who would have gone to college anyway, according to the recently released paper, “The Evidence of Credit Constraints in Post-Secondary Schooling,” in the Economic Journal.

    Pedro Carneiro, a researcher at the University, and Nobel laureate James Heckman, the Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor in Economics, co-authored the article.

    “Both cognitive and non-cognitive skills matter and are formed at early ages,” Heckman said. “These account for most of the gap in college achievement between disadvantaged and advantaged adolescents. The gaps in college attendance between the advantaged and disadvantaged will not be substantially remedied by tuition policy directed toward adolescents.”

    In the paper, the two contend that in order to boost college attendance among poor and minority students, more money must be invested in their education earlier in their lives so they are better prepared for college. Making money available to a 17-year-old is ineffective if that student is not academically ready for college.

    “The influences of family factors that are present from birth through adolescence accumulate over many years to produce ability and college readiness,” the authors state. “By the time individuals finish high school, scholastic ability and motivation are determined.”

    Long-term family income helps determine college attendance because wealthier families provide better early learning opportunities for students and encouragement to attend college, write Carneiro and Heckman. Thus, they argue, financial support is more valuable when children are young and can benefit for years from educational and other opportunities that a greater family income provides.

    In order to determine what impact additional scholarship money might have on boosting attendance among disadvantaged students, the two studied national longitudinal data that tracks students through school and early adulthood, and which contains a great deal of family and financial information.

    They found that students with the least ability to succeed in college were those from families with the lowest incomes, who, unlike students from wealthier families, did not have the same educational advantages earlier in their lives.

    Carneiro and Heckman determined that at most, 8 percent of American youth postpone college because of financial reasons, and that existing aid programs have eliminated most of the financial hurdles to attending college among poor students.