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New Research Shows Barriers to College Admissions for Students Who Aren’t Wealthy

Tina Gridiron, vice president, ACT's Center for Equity in Learning
By: Tina Gridiron, vice president, ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning

For decades, college has been considered the pathway to significantly improving a variety of life outcomes, particularly employment prospects and lifetime earnings. This has been especially true for “Ivy-Plus” universities — the eight Ivy League colleges, plus the University of Chicago, Duke University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Stanford University. These schools are known both for their academic excellence and for enabling their alumni to build a network with others who often become members of the so-called leadership class. These 12 colleges account for more than 10% of Fortune 500 CEOs, one-quarter of U.S. senators, half of all Rhodes scholars, and three-quarters of Supreme Court justices appointed in the past half-century.

But these elite schools also systematically admit students from high-income families at higher rates than less wealthy students, perpetuating “privilege across generations.” That’s according to a new report from economists at Opportunity Insights, a research initiative housed at Harvard University, that used anonymous student data from several sources — including ACT test scores — to analyze socioeconomic diversity at these schools.

This report asks a very urgent and timely question: How can we reform admission practices at these elite colleges to close gaps in equity and opportunity?

First, the good news: These universities can turn the tide — if they change their admissions practices.

Because students from high-income families are attending Ivy-Plus schools at a higher rate, and membership in the leadership class is dominated by graduates of Ivy-Plus schools, there is a cycle that perpetuates “privilege across generations.”

But according to the report, the good news is that Ivy-Plus schools could lessen the emphasis on income-related factors without giving up the high academic potential of applicants. This could break the cycle and help create more opportunities for students raised in lower-income households. And it will be important to expand financial support for applicants from middle-class and lower-income families to ensure that attending an Ivy-Plus university is not cost prohibitive.

“Most of the colleges we studied offered extensive financial aid for lower-income applicants during the period we studied, yet still had much lower attendance rates among those groups as a result of other factors,” the authors wrote. “These results underscore the importance of coupling financial support (which may be a necessary condition for lower-income students to attend expensive colleges) with other policy changes to increase economic mobility.”

Right now, students whose families are in the top 1% have twice the chance of attending some of America’s top schools.

According to the study, data shows that students from working-class families apply at almost the same rate to Ivy-Plus schools, but are not admitted as often as wealthier students — even when they have comparable test scores.

The research points to a few key reasons for this. One is that higher-income students are more likely to attend non-religious private high schools, which often provide more rigorous academic opportunities than public high schools. The study also cites recruitment of student-athletes as an advantage, as they go through a “separate process from other applicants and tend to come from higher-income families.”

These factors combined show how “economic advantage is passed down across generations through participation in selective colleges, which are one of many selective groups in modern societies,” the study said. “Similar dynamics may be at play in other selective groups — from K-12 schools to employers — and could further amplify the persistence of intergenerational inequality.”

However, the study importantly notes that the nation’s top public schools do a much better job of enrolling a socioeconomically diverse student body.

In fact, the “difference in admissions gradients by parental income between selective public and private institutions suggests that highly selective private colleges have the capacity to change the composition of their student bodies by changing their admissions practices,” according to the study. For example, Ivy-Plus schools could adopt approaches more similar to those used by highly selective public colleges.

What can — and should — we do now?

The study authors suggest curbing the influence of three factors that have created these admissions trends at Ivy-Plus schools in the first place: non-academic ratings, special admissions processes for recruited athletes, and legacy students from higher-income families. Doing so should go a long way toward a more socioeconomically diverse student body and a more diverse leadership class for the country.

Experts quoted in coverage of the study’s release in The New York Times also suggested ending need-blind admissions and replacing it with a need-affirmative approach that will select “more students from the low end of the income spectrum.”

We as leaders in assessment and credentialing can help, too, by creating more, and varied, pathways to a successful life, and by helping to prepare all types of learners for their journeys.