The 2013 Influence List

December 09, 2013

The people who shaped higher education this year made their mark through the courts; through the power of an idea; through the act of writing an open letter; even in death. Here are 10 individuals who have had a lasting impact.

Athletes’ Champion


Ed O’Bannon


Jacob Kepler

Unless you're a diehard college basketball fan, the name Ed O'Bannon probably didn't mean much to you before this year. But as the lead plaintiff in a federal antitrust lawsuit against the National Collegiate Athletic Association, he has become as well known as nearly any player in the nation.

He may win college athletes a piece of the profit

The case challenges the NCAA's longstanding principles of amateurism. And Mr. O'Bannon, a former UCLA standout, has come to symbolize the plight of players in their fight for more equitable treatment.

The plaintiffs, who include former legends such as Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson as well as several current athletes, say the NCAA illegally restrains players from trading on their images and likenesses. The association has denied the claims and opposes paying players beyond the value of their scholarships.

Last month the plaintiffs cleared a significant hurdle, earning the right to challenge the NCAA's amateurism model in court. If they win, current and future players could begin earning a share of the hundreds of millions of dollars in commercial revenue in college sports.

Mr. O'Bannon, 41, became involved in the case after spotting himself in an EA Sports video game featuring his 1995 Bruins team. Although his name wasn't used, his likeness was clear: One player wore his No. 31 jersey and had his identical left-handed stroke.

Mr. O'Bannon thought it was wrong that no one had asked his permission to use his likeness, and worse that the NCAA had made money off of it (it's unclear how much the NCAA might have made, but EA Sports and the Collegiate Licensing Company, two other defendants in the case, settled their claims with former players for $40-million). The grievance reminded Mr. O'Bannon of conversations that he and his teammates had in college, complaining about NCAA rules designed to keep athletes in their place. They resented that players, despite all the association's claims about serving students, still lacked due-process protections and other basic rights.

He connected with an old friend, Sonny Vaccaro, a longtime sports-marketing executive who has dedicated himself to helping players. Mr. Vaccaro put him in touch with Michael Hausfeld, a civil litigator who specializes in social reform, who helped him file his case.

Last month's ruling was not all positive for the plaintiffs, as a judge denied the players' attempts to win damages as a group. Despite the setback, Mr. O'Bannon is not ready to step away from the fight. He plans to help establish a nationwide trade association for players, which he hopes will one day negotiate on their behalf.

Whatever the outcome of the case, which is scheduled to go to trial next summer, those efforts could provide college athletes with an opportunity that Mr. O'Bannon never had.

"All I wanted was to unlock the door," he says. "It's going to take a collective effort by a lot of individuals, but in the near future you are going to see it.

"They're going to change the game."

—Brad Wolverton

Symbol of the Powerless


Margaret Mary Vojtko

Margaret Mary Vojtko, a longtime adjunct, lived a private life in a small town outside of Pittsburgh. But in death, Ms. Vojtko became a larger-than-life symbol of the struggles faced by faculty members who try to eke out a living by teaching off the tenure track.

Her death brought attention to adjuncts' plight

Details of the final months and death of the part-time French instructor at Duquesne University resonated with a wide swath of people outside of academe, who learned about how someone with a decades-long teaching career ended up poverty-stricken and largely alone. Her story brought new scrutiny to higher education's heavy reliance on adjuncts and the poor working conditions that go along with the position.

"Margaret Mary Vojtko humanized the 'adjunct problem' both within and outside the academy," said Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a national advocacy group for instructors off the tenure track. "To those in positions of power, she was the adjunct who stubbornly refused to be conveniently discarded and forgotten about. To those of us who are her colleagues, her undeserved situation was a reminder of what could await us if we do not act now to transform higher education's attitude toward faculty and students."

Ms. Vojtko died in early September at the age of 83, after a heart attack. Like many adjuncts she had no health insurance and a paltry income from teaching that, near the end of her life, was reported to be less than $10,000 a year. In the weeks before her death, Ms. Vojtko found out that after 25 years on Duquesne's payroll, she wasn't going to be rehired.

Her story garnered national media attention after a lawyer for the United Steelworkers union (which Duquesne adjuncts voted to join last year) wrote an opinion piece in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about how Ms. Vojtko spent the last months of her life: wiped out from cancer treatments, struggling to pay bills, and fighting to keep her job. Others weighed in on Ms. Vojtko's demise, further publicizing the plight of faculty members who work off the tenure track, a group that now makes up roughly 70 percent of the professoriate. Adjuncts moved quickly to make Ms. Vojtko's death a rallying cry. The hashtag #iammargaretmary was born.

Ms. Vojtko's story was kept alive on social media as adjunct after adjunct chimed in to identify with the tragic arc that her career and life had taken.

"I don't talk about being an adjunct much, because adjuncts are coded as losers. #iammargaretmary," tweeted Angus Johnston, an adjunct who teaches history at the City University of New York.

Among adjuncts and their allies, Ms. Vojtko's death and the attention it received seemed to generate a newfound determination to secure more money, health benefits, and job security for adjunct professors. The debate around the factors that led to Ms. Vojtko's death also spawned some questions about just how much Duquesne, a Roman Catholic university, should have done to help someone in her circumstances when in some instances Ms. Vojtko appeared to shun assistance.

Joshua Zelesnick, who befriended Ms. Vojtko while working as a fellow adjunct at Duquesne, said he had urged Ms. Vojtko to "tell her story."

"But she was a very proud woman, very dignified," Mr. Zelesnick said. "She was trying to hold on to her dignity as a professional as best as she could."

—Audrey Williams June

Statehouse Persuader


Dominique Raymond


Haroon Ahmad

As an executive at a 10-person nonprofit association, Dominique Raymond has a powerful hand in shaping state policy on higher education.

The group she leads, Complete College America's Alliance of States, is influencing decisions from Oregon to Florida on such hot-button issues as remedial education and performance-based funding.

Thanks to her, more states tie college funding to college performance

Largely as a result of its work, 16 states have recently passed laws linking a portion or all of colleges' appropriations to performance measures like graduation rates and students' progress through remedial courses. At least nine other states are seriously considering moves in that direction after prodding from the nonprofit, which receives much of its financial backing from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

As a vice president at Complete College America, where she has been since 2010, Ms. Raymond advises teams from 33 states and the District of Columbia that have agreed to set college-completion goals, take policy action, and collect data to promote the group's agenda. She sees her job as connecting people to effective practices.

Ms. Raymond is helping Baltimore City Community College, for instance, adopt a program started at the City University of New York that enrolls students in cohorts by major, full time, with structured schedules and small classes. Its graduation rate is more than three times the national average for urban community colleges.

While critics have accused Complete College America of being overly prescriptive, she sees nothing wrong with that: "If something works, why wouldn't you want to replicate it?"

Ms. Raymond, 48, grew up on Chicago's South Side, where her parents moved from Haiti in the 1960s. Her mother, a nurse, and her father, a TV repairman, taught her that education was "a great equalizer," she says.

Critics have cautioned that some of her organization's strategies could hurt poor and minority students. But she counters that they stand to gain the most from the nonprofit's advocacy.

"If you can provide the structure and framework for people to access education," says Ms. Raymond, "you'll improve their lives."

She takes a highly structured approach to her work: Her meetings on college completion are carefully choreographed, with a mix of politicos, presidents, and provosts. And she makes sure that everyone leaves with aggressive plans to put into effect the nonprofit's "game-changing strategies," such as integrating remediation into gateway courses, providing incentives for students to enroll full time, and introducing structured schedules and degree plans.

"What I love about these game changers are the double-digit gains that show they're working," says Ms. Raymond. Clear, convincing data are crucial, she says, to persuade policy makers.

"Dominique has a deep understanding of state politics, as well as K-12 and higher-education agendas," says Donna Linderman, CUNY's university associate dean for student-success initiatives. "She understands how they all have to fit together to move the action forward."

—Katherine Mangan

Anti-Rape Activist


Andrea Pino


Thomas Patterson, The New York Times, Redux

Andrea Pino (left) with Annie Clark

Sexual assault became a major issue for colleges this year, and 21-year-old Andrea Pino is one reason why. Ms. Pino's federal complaint in January against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill accused it of bungling its response to her rape, sparking a movement.

She holds college accountable for sexual assault

Inspired by the actions of Ms. Pino and her four co-complainants, students elsewhere have filed similar complaints this year against some of the nation's most prestigious colleges, including Amherst, Berkeley, Dartmouth, Occidental, Swarthmore, and Vanderbilt. Federal officials, meanwhile, have met with the movement's leaders, who are asking for stricter enforcement of the civil-rights law that governs how colleges respond to reports of sexual assault. Institutions large and small, responding to the heightened scrutiny, have scrambled to review their policies.

Ms. Pino, a senior and first-generation student from Miami, filed her complaint after reading up on federal law and learning that colleges are obligated to give students support and guidance in cases of sexual assault.

"I realized there was so much information that wasn't communicated to students," says Ms. Pino, who was a resident adviser at Chapel Hill and active in campus-safety issues when she learned, by accident, about the federal requirements. "We didn't know Title IX guaranteed us any sort of protection."

The activists are mobilizing around a particularly vexing problem for colleges as they try to comply with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Meant to prohibit sex discrimination at institutions that receive federal funds, the law requires colleges to investigate and resolve reports of sexual misconduct, including assault, regardless of whether the police are called in. The mandate has challenged many colleges, whose campus disciplinary systems are often ill equipped to deal with interpersonal violence.

Immediately after filing her complaint, Ms. Pino began hearing from rape survivors at other colleges. Like her, they were frustrated and angry. Bolstered by social media and a sense of injustice, they began to compare notes, swap stories, and strategize.

By the spring, students at five more institutions had filed federal complaints against their colleges. Meanwhile, an informal online network, housed on a private Facebook page, began to take shape, drawing in students and graduates from dozens of colleges. Called the IX Network, it is helping students collaborate to craft complaints. Its membership now tops 800.

Ms. Pino, who got an ankle tattoo of the Roman numeral "IX" the day she filed her complaint, has read every one that students filed this year. Her activism has taken her around the country—40 flights in 2013—and this semester she has been on leave from Chapel Hill, living and working on the West Coast.

She was not the first ever to lodge a federal complaint against her college, of course. Nor is she the sole architect of the growing movement. (A friend and co-complainant, Annie E. Clark, is Ms. Pino's close collaborator.) But her decision to portray UNC as just one example of systemic problems with colleges' sexual-assault response was key in prompting this new wave of student-led activism against campus rape.

"When you frame the cause as being something bigger than you, then people can relate to it," Ms. Pino says. "It has its own agency."

—Libby Sander

Open-Access Hero


Aaron Swartz


Noah Berger, Reuter, Newscom

Five years ago, Aaron Swartz published an open-access manifesto urging people to resist "the private theft of public culture." The activist's suicide in January became a rallying cry for the movement he helped galvanize.

His death galvanized the open-access movement

In his manifesto, he called for the overthrow of the traditional system of scholarly publishing. "Forcing academics to pay money to read the work of their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries but only allowing the folks at Google to read them? Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the First World, but not to children in the Global South? It's outrageous and unacceptable," he wrote.

Mr. Swartz had a solution: "We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies, and share them with the world."

His work had always revolved around sharing. He helped develop the RSS feed, co-founded the social news site Reddit, and campaigned against excessive government and commercial control of the Internet.

As the cause of open access gathered steam, Mr. Swartz took a drastic—some said extreme—step. In 2011 he was accused of breaking into a computer closet at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and illegally downloading more than four million files from JSTOR's archive of scholarly articles. He faced multiple felony charges and the possibility of serious jail time. On January 11 he killed himself. He was 26.

"What Aaron's case begs us to remember is that universities are supposed to be public, not-for-profit institutions," John H. Summers, a historian, told The Chronicle in 2011. "They owe a standing moral debt to the public." (Mr. Summers is editor in chief of The Baffler magazine, where Mr. Swartz was a contributing editor.)

Immediately after Mr. Swartz's death, open-access advocates and researchers began posting PDFs of their scholarly articles online and flagging them on Twitter with the hashtag #PDFtribute. Opinion pieces appeared, in The Chronicle and elsewhere, with headlines like "Aaron Swartz Was Right." Lawrence Lessig, the Harvard law professor and copyright activist, and many other notable figures commemorated Mr. Swartz's contributions to widening access to knowledge.

Beyond the tributes, Mr. Swartz's life and death triggered soul-searching among many who shared his goals for open access, or "OA." Librarians, among others, wondered whether he'd gone too far, even as they asked themselves whether they were complicit in the system he had condemned.

"The actual method of OA that Swartz recommended was highly controversial even among the strongest OA advocates," Bohyun Kim wrote in a February post on a blog of the Association of College and Research Libraries. But Ms. Kim, a digital-access librarian at Florida International University's Medical Library, said academic libraries "should start asking themselves this question: What will libraries have to offer for those who seek knowledge for learning and inquiry but cannot afford it? If the answer is nothing, we will have lost libraries."

A blog post by John Dupuis, a science librarian at York University, in Toronto, captured something of Swartz's outsize influence. "Aaron Swartz's story has had a huge impact, it has reverberated far and wide not just through the interlinking worlds of technology and online activism but far into the mainstream," he wrote. "If we have learned anything from this tragedy, it's that we need to redouble our efforts to make the entire body of scholarly information accessible not only to our institutions but to all the people of the world."

—Jennifer Howard

Investment Adviser


Mark Schneider

Mark S. Schneider has made it a personal mission to see that students know how long it will take them to get their degree, what it will cost them, and what they are likely to earn once they graduate. As a result, he is changing the national conversation about college accountability.

He pushed colleges to prove the return on students' investments

Seven years ago, Mr. Schneider was taking political flak from a host of higher-education associations, and even some members of Congress, for his failed push for a beefed-up federal data system that would track individual students' progress through college. The idea, revived from previous administrations, was to give policy makers better tools to evaluate colleges.

That so-called unit-record system still does not exist. But Mr. Schneider can be pretty stubborn. Following his three-year stint as U.S. commissioner of education statistics, he became a vice president at the American Institutes for Research, and has never stopped looking for ways to achieve some of the goals of such a system.

In 2011, with support from the Lumina Foundation, he formed College Measures, which provides reports on graduates' salaries by institution and major, connecting information drawn from institutions and from state employment databases. Though decried by some as both misleading and a simplistic way to evaluate the value of a college, the reports make it possible for students and policy makers to see which degree programs are producing the highest- (and lowest-) earning graduates and to compare one institution's programs with another's. "We had to make this part of the public discussion," he says.

College Measures has produced reports for five states: Arkansas, Colorado, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. The initial reports looked at salaries for graduates one year after graduation. The next round—for Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, Tennessee, and Texas—will track graduates over a longer time.

Mr. Schneider, 67, who was a professor of political science at the State University of New York at Stony Brook for more than 30 years before taking the commissioner post, says he has nothing against students' pursuing degrees like creative writing or music, which show up with low salaries in College Measures reports. "I like jazz," he says. He just wants students to know that majoring in music probably won't make them rich.

Students are not the only audience. Tennessee is developing criteria for its own public-college scorecard. According to Randy Boyd, a special adviser on higher education to Gov. Bill Haslam, the salaries that graduates earn "should be in anybody's top 10" criteria.

And Florida lawmakers have begun demanding regular reports on the employment and earnings of graduates by institution and discipline. The first version of that report, due out this month, is expected to draw mainly on the College Measures report.

Mr. Schneider acknowledges that it took the recession and the ensuing public anxiety over student debt and whether college was worth it to open the doors to his work. "After 2008," he says, "the concept of ROI just became acceptable."

—Goldie Blumenstyk

Race-Blind Advocate


Edward Blum


Matt McClain for The Washington Post, Getty Images

Edward J. Blum lacks a law degree or fixed office, but he manages to wield more legal clout than a lot of well-staffed advocacy groups do.

His one-man operation, the Project on Fair Representation, persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court to toughen the rules governing colleges' consideration of race in admissions, in the case Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. Although the full implications of this year's ruling remain unclear, it has left higher-education institutions reconsidering their policies and many critics of race-conscious admissions confident of having gained an upper hand.

He has rattled admissions officers nationwide

The justices surprised many colleges' lawyers in even taking up the Texas case, rather than leaving intact a ruling in the university's favor by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. When the Supreme Court last considered race-conscious admissions, in 2003, the majority opinion suggested that the court might revisit the matter in, perhaps, 25 years—not 10.

The near-unanimity of the Supreme Court's 7-to-1 vote to overrule the appeals court also was surprising. (Justice Elena Kagan recused herself.)

Mr. Blum's legal team helped bring about such a consensus by mostly sidestepping the divisive debate over the constitutionality of race-conscious admissions and arguing instead that the Fifth Circuit had failed to comply with the Supreme Court's precedents. The Fisher ruling said the Fifth Circuit had erred in accepting on good faith Texas' assertion that it needed to consider applicants' race to achieve sufficient diversity, and instead should have performed a "searching examination" of whether Texas had considered alternatives serving "about as well and at tolerable administrative expense."

"I would say we hit—in baseball lingo—a stand-up triple," Mr. Blum says. He would have been happier if the Supreme Court had fully rejected Texas's policy but says he is confident that the Fifth Circuit will now be obliged to strike it down.

He characterizes his role in such litigation as that of matchmaker. He chooses a policy to oppose, recruits a plaintiff to challenge it, pairs that plaintiff with like-minded lawyers willing to work at little or no cost, and then coordinates the litigation and handles news-media inquiries.

It took him more than two years to find his Texas plaintiff: Abigail Noel Fisher, who is the daughter of an old friend and is confident that Texas rejected her, in 2008, because she is white. Finding people to represent her was relatively easy, Mr. Blum says, because "there is an enormous pool of talented lawyers who are anxious to get involved in these kinds of cases."

Mr. Blum, 61, began his legal crusade against race-conscious government policies as a result of his own 1992 defeat as a Republican candidate for Congress. He challenged the Houston district in which he had run as being unconstitutionally racially gerrymandered, eventually scoring his first Supreme Court win. Since then he has mounted 14 other voting-rights lawsuits and played a role in several challenges to school-desegregation plans.

He expects to mount lawsuits over other colleges' race-conscious admission policies, which he sees as now more vulnerable. "I am interested in having the Fisher opinion actually be implemented at colleges and universities around the country," he says.

—Peter Schmidt

Influential Customer


The Chinese Parent

American colleges are no strangers to the helicopter parent, those meddlesome moms and dads heavily involved in their children's lives. But in China—where government policy has, for decades, limited most families to a single child, and a college degree is viewed as key to an entire family's future financial security—parents can be Black Hawks to Americans' whirligigs. And their influence has started to affect colleges here.

Their tuition money talks

The number of Chinese students at American colleges has soared in recent years, to 235,600 and counting. On some campuses, they are second in number only to home-state students, their tuition a crucial source of revenue to cash-strapped colleges.

Not only do Chinese parents write the tuition checks, but they also carry enormous weight in deciding where, and what, their children study. That influence can be easy to overlook. Unlike their American counterparts, Chinese fathers and mothers aren't necessarily calling the dean to get a grade fixed—many aren't English speakers. But when Zinch China, a consulting company that advises American colleges and universities about student recruitment, surveyed prospective students this year, they cited parents as having the greatest impact on students' choice to study overseas—more than friends, classmates, or teachers.

In the hypercompetitive Chinese system—more than nine million high-school students sit each year for the gao kao, the all-important national college-entrance exam—enrollment in after-school classes and weekend tutoring is common from a young age. One Shanghai father confided that he worried that his daughter's faltering English would hurt her chances of getting into a top university. The girl was 6 years old.

On days the gao kao is administered, nervous parents throng outside testing centers. Some estranged couples have reportedly feigned reconciliation so as not to put additional stress on their children before the big exam.

Today, a degree from a foreign university is seen as advantageous in a country with far more people (nearly 1.4 billion) than well-paying jobs. To get their children into an American college, many Chinese parents are willing to make a significant investment. Tuition at high schools, or divisions of high schools, that offer international curricula can cost upward of $10,000 a year. For supplementary English lessons and test preparation, parents shell out more. Even taking the SAT is costly—because the exam is not offered in mainland China, students must travel to testing sites in Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea.

If Chinese parents could do the college interview in their children's stead, they would, some admissions counselors say. Zinch advises universities not just to market to students but to make sure their admissions materials also speak to the issue that mama and bàba care about: safety and college major.

As for that major, practical-minded Chinese parents want their children to study fields in which they can get a job—a third of all Chinese students at American colleges are in business programs.

The real question, as members of the first wave of Chinese students prepare to earn their B.A.'s, is whether a foreign degree gives its holders a leg up. If education is an investment, expect Chinese parents to be scrutinizing the returns.

—Karin Fischer

MOOC Busters


San Jose State Philosophy Professors

It was with a four-page open letter that the dozen members of the department of philosophy at San Jose State University took on their provost, their president, the governor and legislature of the State of California, and a constellation of high-profile MOOC providers, smooth PR firms, and wealthy venture-capital funds.

They rejected claims that MOOCs will democratize higher education

Massive open online courses like the one their department had been pressed to try out, the philosophers declared, were nothing more than the first step in a "a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education" that would demolish their state's famous public-university system and leave in its place "a hodgepodge branch of private companies." Such "one-size-fits-all vendor-designed blended courses," they said, would split higher education in two: A few rich, elite institutions would record interactions between real professors and their fortunate students, while everywhere else, students would "watch a bunch of videotaped lectures" and interact, if at all, with a "glorified teaching assistant." The spread of MOOCs, the letter said, would be like "something out of a dystopian novel."

The philosophers addressed the April 29 letter to Michael J. Sandel, the Harvard University political philosopher whose MOOC, "JusticeX," they had been asked to integrate into their curriculum. But the letter's reach was far broader—it was read and cited from coast to coast—and its conclusion resonated with many faculty members: "Professors who care about public education should not produce products that will replace professors, dismantle departments, and provide a diminished education for students in public universities."

The San Jose philosophy professors were by no means the first to raise red flags about MOOCs. But because San Jose State's administration has been conducting a series of high-profile MOOC experiments, the professors had standing to sue, as it were, and facts to deploy when they did. Since what philosophers do best is construct and deconstruct arguments—and since these philosophers are good writers—their letter made a forceful case.

That said, plenty of smart people say colleges that hew to the traditional—and expensive—classroom model won't survive. But the philosophers' letter has at least given lots of others pause and has handed those who question the rush to MOOCs a set of talking points. Indeed, Mitchell Duneier, a Princeton University sociology professor who had been a star of the MOOC movement, echoed some of the philosophers' concerns in September, after he stopped teaching his online course and became a high-profile defector from the cause. He had decided, he said, that he didn't want "to be part of a movement that is really about helping state universities achieve cost savings at the expense of their own faculty and students."

—Lawrence Biemiller

Opportunity Makers


Caroline M. Hoxby & Sarah E. Turner


Dan Addison, U. of Virginia & Linda A. Cicero, Stanford News Service

Sarah Turner and Caroline Hoxby

Caroline M. Hoxby and Sarah E. Turner have devised an inexpensive way to get high-achieving, low-income students to consider selective colleges, an idea that has received widespread attention this year.

They're opening doors for low-income students

In a phenomenon called "undermatching," such students usually end up at places with fewer resources, less-prepared classmates, and lower graduation rates.

Ms. Hoxby, a professor of economics at Stanford University, and Ms. Turner, a professor of economics at the University of Virginia, devised an experiment in which they mailed college information to high-school students whose family incomes were in the bottom 25 percent and whose test scores were in the top 10 percent.

In the randomized trial, the professors sent one group of students general college-search information, another group information on college costs after financial aid, a third group application-fee waivers, and a fourth group all of those. A control group got nothing. The mailings cost only $6 per student.

And they worked. Students who received the combined information—and remembered getting it—submitted 48 percent more applications than did those in the control group. They applied to colleges that had a 17-percent higher graduation rate and an 86-point higher median SAT score. And the students enrolled in colleges that were 46 percent more likely to be places where their classmates were equally prepared.

Getting students to go to certain colleges wasn't really the goal, Ms. Hoxby told The Chronicle this past spring. It was to help them choose. "To not make decisions well simply because you don't know what's out there," she said, "that's sad."

Now she and Ms. Turner, both 47, are collaborating with the College Board to expand their work. Already packets based on the economists' experiment have been sent to 28,000 high-school seniors, and the College Board plans to email them, too. It also expects to expand the outreach to younger students. About 35,000 high-achieving, low-income students graduate from high school each year, and very few apply to any of the country's 230 or so most selective colleges, according to a previous study by Ms. Hoxby and another researcher.

At least one state, Delaware, is also joining the effort, announcing this fall that it would collaborate with the College Board and send information to an additional 2,000 students.

While the researchers have found that families are wary of information from colleges themselves, Harvard University has said it will conduct similar outreach, encouraging students to consider it and other selective institutions.

It's been a big year for the idea of undermatching: White House officials met with college presidents to discuss it, and it underpins Michelle Obama's recent focus on expanding college access.

Still, not everyone is sold on the solution. Catharine Bond Hill, president of Vassar College and an economist, argued in a letter to The New York Times that as long as many selective colleges "reject talented low-income applicants because of students' financial need," then without extra aid, "getting more low-income students to apply to top colleges will just result in more rejections."

Of course, students could be rejected from selective colleges for any number of reasons. But nobody goes to one without applying first.

—Beckie Supiano