The University of Chicago News Office
Dec. 12, 2002 Press Contact: William Harms
(773) 702-8356

Early Opportunities More Important than Scholarships In Determining who goes to College

Special government scholarship programs do little to boost college attendance among disadvantaged students because family factors and college preparation have greater influence on whether students go to college, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Chicago.

The federal government's popular Hope Scholarship Program, which provides income tax deductions to families sending their children to college, has mainly benefited the children of nondisadvantaged 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 of Chicago, and James Heckman, a Professor of Economics at the University wrote the paper.

“Both cognitive and noncognitive skills matter and are formed at early ages,” Heckman said. “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 that they are better prepared for college. Making money available when a child is 17 is not effective if the child is not 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 is 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, the Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor in Economics and a Nobel Prize winner. Thus, they argue, financial support is more valuable when children are young and can benefit for years from educational opportunities that 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 contains a great deal of family and financial information. They found that the students with the least ability to succeed in college were those from families with the lowest incomes, who, unlike those from wealthier families, did not have the same advantages early in their lives.

Carneiro and Heckman determined that at most, 8 percent of American youth postpone college because of financial reasons. Existing aid programs have eliminated most of the financial hurdles to attending college among poor students. Students also borrow money and work to meet their expenses.
Last modified at 01:44 PM CST on Monday, December 16, 2002.

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