Admission Practices At Elite Colleges Add To Advantages Of The Wealthy

A new study by a team of economists finds that although fewer than 1% of college students attend the highly selective, private “Ivy-Plus” colleges—the eight colleges in the Ivy League, the University of Chicago, Duke, MIT, and Stanford – they eventually account for 15% of those in the top 0.1% of the income distribution. They also make up a quarter of U.S. Senators, half of all Rhodes scholars, and three-fourths of Supreme Court justices appointed in the last half-century.

The large study was conducted by Raj Chetty and David Deming of Harvard University and John Friedman of Brown University, part of the Opportunity Insights team that has conducted prior ground-breaking research on the relationship between economic standing and educational opportunity.

Their study was based on an analysis of anonymized college admissions data linked with with federal records about parents’ and students’ income tax records and students’ SAT/ACT scores. In addition to the Ivy-Plus colleges, they analyzed data from several public institutions, including all schools in the University of California and California State University systems and all four-year publics schools in Texas.

Among the main findings:

Students who attend Ivy-Plus institutions disproportionately come from high-income backgrounds.

While only 10% of students scoring at the 99th percentile on the SAT/ACT from middle-class families attend an Ivy-Plus college, 40% of similarly high-scoring students from families in the top 1 percent of the income distribution do so.

Students from the top 1% of the income distribution are nearly twice as likely to be admitted to Ivy-Plus colleges compared to applicants from low- or middle-income families with comparable SAT/ACT scores.

The authors estimate that this higher admissions rate leads to 103 extra students being admitted from the top 1% in a typical Ivy-Plus class (of 1,650 students) relative to a theoretical benchmark where students are admitted at the same rates across the parental income distribution based on their test scores.

In contrast, admission rates at flagship public colleges did not vary with parental income conditioned on students’ test scores, but students from higher-income families are more likely to apply to flagship public colleges than to non flagships.

Higher admission rates among students from high-income families are linked to three factors: legacy preferences for children of alumni, higher non-academic ratings, and athletic recruitment.

Legacy admission policies exerted the largest effect, with legacy applicants admitted at higher rates at all levels of parental income. The biggest boost was given to high-income legacy applicants, who are five times more likely to be admitted to an Ivy-Plus college than peers with comparable credentials who are not legacies. Legacies would account for 47 of the 103 extra students admitted from the highest income levels.

The authors also found that while children of alumni at a given Ivy-Plus college are much more likely to be admitted at that college, they are no more likely than non-legacies to gain admission at other Ivy-Plus colleges, suggesting that they do not have stronger academic credentials.

The weight placed on non-academic factors like extracurricular activities, leadership capacity, and personal traits had the next largest effect, accounting for 31 of the 103 extra top 1% students. Among students with similar SAT/ACT scores, those who attend private high schools tend to obtain much higher non-academic ratings (but similar academic ratings) than students attending public high schools.

The remainder of the high-income admissions advantage was due to athletic recruitment, yielding another 25 extra students from the top 1% because recruited athletes come disproportionately from high-income families.

The three factors underlying the high-income admissions advantage were not associated with better post-college outcomes.

Legacy students, students with higher non-academic ratings, and recruited athletes have equal or lower chances of reaching the upper end of the income distribution, attending an elite graduate school, or working at a prestigious firm (e.g., highly ranked hospitals, universities, research institutions, and firms in law, consulting, and finance) than comparable Ivy-Plus applicants once the investigators adjusted for the fact that they had been admitted to better colleges.

However, SAT/ACT scores and holistic academic ratings were highly predictive of post-college outcomes. According to the authors, “despite having potential biases that may favor high-income students, SAT/ACT scores remain one of the best predictors of students’ post-college outcomes among available indicators.”

The authors conclude that if they changed their admissions policies, “Ivy-Plus colleges could significantly diversify the socioeconomic backgrounds of America’s highest earners and leaders.” Three changes could make a substantial difference:

  • Eliminating legacy preferences,
  • Evaluating non-academic characteristics in a fuller context to account for the effects of privilege, and
  • Recruiting athletes more uniformly across the parental income distribution.

The authors estimate that those three changes would increase the share of students from the bottom 95% of the parental income distribution attending Ivy- Plus colleges by 8.7 percentage points, equal to about 144 students in a typical Ivy-Plus college class.

“This increase is similar in size to the reduction in the number of Black and Hispanic students that would arise from ending race-based affirmative action. In other words, eliminating or adjusting admissions policies that benefit high- income applicants—even stopping short of class-based affirmative action policies that favor lower-income applicants—would increase socioeconomic diversity by a magnitude comparable to the effect of racial preferences on racial diversity,” they write.

Accompanying their new study, the authors also released new college-level data on the parental income distributions of applicants and enrolled students (controlling for SAT/ACT scores) for 150 selective public and private colleges. It can be found here.

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