08/01/2013 02:29 pm ET Updated Oct 01, 2013

Reclaiming the Title "Land of Opportunity"

Dating back to the days of the Bering land bridge, what we now call the United States has historically been populated by people on the move, seeking to improve their lives.

That's why it was particularly jarring when University System of Maryland Chancellor William "Brit" Kirwan recently noted on a panel on which I was participating:

"We're the land of opportunity. We're the upwardly mobile society," but now "rank 15th or 16th in social mobility. We rank behind England in income disparity... Now, you may remember, we fought a Revolutionary War to rid ourselves of the class system that England represented at that time. They have less income disparity today than America, and so we can't be the America we've always thought of ourselves as being, or the America we want to leave to our children and grandchildren, if we don't address this issue."

Our panel was sponsored by the Hamilton Project, an initiative of the Brookings Institution. We were exploring the implications of the Expanding College Opportunities (ECO) project by Caroline Hoxby of Stanford University and Sarah Turner of the University of Virginia. They found that many high-achieving, low-income high school students do not apply to the selective colleges for which they qualify, even though they would be more likely to graduate from them than from less-selective schools, and would likely pay less for them as well.

In the ECO project, students received personalized information about colleges within their reach -- academically challenging, financially accessible, and geographically appropriate. Hoxby and Turner discovered that students provided with this information were more likely to enroll in selective schools and more likely to graduate.

Because the information was provided by mail, the costs were minimal -- about $6 per student, far lower than for traditional face-to-face advising. The data used to identify students were available from organizations like ACT and the College Board, so the results are also scalable, which means the ECO project could be implemented on a national level.

Standardized testing is sometimes considered a hurdle to overcome, but for families without personal experiences in higher education and sometimes limited expectations for the options available to their children, it can also be the gateway to opportunity.

The ACT test is currently provided through state assessments to students in 13 states. There is no cost to the individual student when the testing is funded by the state. As a nonprofit organization we also offer millions of dollars' worth of fee waivers to lower-income students across the United States each year. For many students, the results from these experiences may be perceived as the first tangible evidence that they're "college material."

The ECO project provides empirical evidence of that reality, and has already changed lives.