‘Affirmative Action for the Rich’ in College Admissions
After other controls are applied, household income is still a huge advantage.
NYT/The Upshot (“Study of Elite College Admissions Data Suggests Being Very Rich Is Its Own Qualification“):
Elite colleges have long been filled with the children of the richest families: At Ivy League schools, one in six students has parents in the top 1 percent.
A large new study, released Monday, shows that it has not been because these children had more impressive grades on average or took harder classes. They tended to have higher SAT scores and finely honed résumés, and applied at a higher rate — but they were overrepresented even after accounting for those things. For applicants with the same SAT or ACT score, children from families in the top 1 percent were 34 percent more likely to be admitted than the average applicant, and those from the top 0.1 percent were more than twice as likely to get in.
The graphic is rather stark—and shows a somewhat different picture:
So, having very wealthy parents is, in and of itself, seemingly a huge advantage even apart from all of the advantages that otherwise accrue to those children in terms of private schooling, test preparation, the ability to pad resumes with extracurriculars, etc. At the same time, those in the six lowest deciles also have a significant—albeit not nearly as large—advantage, while those from the upper middle class and moderately wealthy households are actually punished slightly.
The study — by Opportunity Insights, a group of economists based at Harvard who study inequality — quantifies for the first time the extent to which being very rich is its own qualification in selective college admissions.
The analysis is based on federal records of college attendance and parental income taxes for nearly all college students from 1999 to 2015, and standardized test scores from 2001 to 2015. It focuses on the eight Ivy League universities, as well as Stanford, Duke, M.I.T. and the University of Chicago. It adds an extraordinary new data set: the detailed, anonymized internal admissions assessments of at least three of the 12 colleges, covering half a million applicants. (The researchers did not name the colleges that shared data or specify how many did because they promised them anonymity.)
The new data shows that among students with the same test scores, the colleges gave preference to the children of alumni and to recruited athletes, and gave children from private schools higher nonacademic ratings. The result is the clearest picture yet of how America’s elite colleges perpetuate the intergenerational transfer of wealth and opportunity.
“What I conclude from this study is the Ivy League doesn’t have low-income students because it doesn’t want low-income students,” said Susan Dynarski, an economist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who has reviewed the data and was not involved in the study.
In effect, the study shows, these policies amounted to affirmative action for the children of the 1 percent, whose parents earn more than $611,000 a year. It comes as colleges are being forced to rethink their admissions processes after the Supreme Court ruling that race-based affirmative action is unconstitutional.
“Are these highly selective private colleges in America taking kids from very high-income, influential families and basically channeling them to remain at the top in the next generation?” said Raj Chetty, an economist at Harvard who directs Opportunity Insights, and an author of the paper with John N. Friedman of Brown and David J. Deming of Harvard. “Flipping that question on its head, could we potentially diversify who’s in a position of leadership in our society by changing who is admitted?”
Given that getting into these schools is much harder than graduating from them once admitted, and that their lifetime branding and networking advantages are considerable, the admissions departments of these schools have an incredible amount of power in choosing our elites. The overwhelming number of people who even bother applying to these schools are highly capable young people.
I continue to believe that admissions to the top schools—and, I must once again emphasize that we put wildly disproportionate emphasis on a handful of selective schools in our conversations about higher education—should be on a lottery system. There could be a relatively objective set of criteria applied to select the most capable applicants and then randomize the selection from within that group.
The schools say they’re trying to remedy the problem:
Representatives from several of the colleges said that income diversity was an urgent priority, and that they had taken significant steps since 2015, when the data in the study ends, to admit lower-income and first-generation students. These include making tuition free for families earning under a certain amount; giving only grants, not loans, in financial aid; and actively recruiting students from disadvantaged high schools.
“We believe that talent exists in every sector of the American income distribution,” said Christopher L. Eisgruber, the president of Princeton. “I am proud of what we have done to increase socioeconomic diversity at Princeton, but I also believe that we need to do more — and we will do more.”
My strong suspicion—and I haven’t taken the time to read the study itself—is that the skew is relatively non-nefarious in intent, even while it’s pernicious in impact. As the graph shows, there’s clearly a strong attempt to let in students from relatively disadvantaged households. Those in the bottom deciles are getting in at a higher rate than their packages would merit. At the same time, the combination of legacy admissions and a desire to admit students who will pay full freight rather than requesting financial aid is likely skewing the selection rates at the very top.
This is interesting as well:
The new data showed that other selective private colleges, like Northwestern, N.Y.U. and Notre Dame, had a similarly disproportionate share of children from rich families. Public flagship universities were much more equitable. At places like the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Virginia, applicants with high-income parents were no more likely to be admitted than lower-income applicants with comparable scores.
The incentives are flipped at the state schools, who are trying to increase their prestige levels by competing for the best students. To the extent that they’re trying to pad their income stream, they do so by admitting foreign and out-of-state students who pay much higher tuition rates.
And getting back to an earlier point:
Less than 1 percent of American college students attend the 12 elite colleges. But the group plays an outsize role in American society: 12 percent of Fortune 500 chief executives and a quarter of U.S. senators attended. So did 13 percent of the top 0.1 percent of earners. The focus on these colleges is warranted, the researchers say, because they provide paths to power and influence — and diversifying who attends has the potential to change who makes decisions in America.
They also reinforce prior research:
The researchers did a novel analysis to measure whether attending one of these colleges causes success later in life. They compared students who were wait-listed and got in, with those who didn’t and attended another college instead. Consistent with previous research, they found that attending an Ivy instead of one of the top nine public flagships did not meaningfully increase graduates’ income, on average. However, it did increase a student’s predicted chance of earning in the top 1 percent to 19 percent, from 12 percent.
For outcomes other than earnings, the effect was even larger — it nearly doubled the estimated chance of attending a top graduate school, and tripled the estimated chance of working at firms that are considered prestigious, like national news organizations and research hospitals.
“Sure, it’s a tiny slice of schools,” said Professor Dynarski, who has studied college admissions and worked with the University of Michigan on increasing the attendance of low-income students, and has occasionally contributed to The New York Times. “But having representation is important, and this shows how much of a difference the Ivies make: The political elite, the economic elite, the intellectual elite are coming out of these schools.”
The top graduates at Harvard and Princeton aren’t much different in terms of aptitude from their counterparts at Michigan or the University of Virginia. And they all do quite well later in life.
Still, of the nine justices on the US Supreme Court, only one (Amy Coney Barrett) lacks an Ivy League degree (and she went to Notre Dame, not a state flagship). Everything from Supreme Court clerkships to internships at the New York Times is skewed toward the top handful of schools. Not just because they’re able to select from the very best students but because of the aforementioned branding and networking connections. As good as the best state schools are, their professors are much less likely to be able to call up a Supreme Court justice or the editor of the Times to lobby for their graduates.
There’s actually quite a bit more to the article, which breaks down the study much further. It’s worth a read.