Study of admissions data from elite universities suggests that being very wealthy is a qualification in itself (2023)

DoorAtish Bhatia,Claire Cain MillerjJoseph Katz

Elite universities have long been packed with kids from the wealthiest families: In Ivy League schools, one in six students has parents who are in the top 1 percent.

Abeautiful new studio, published Monday, shows it wasn't because these kids had more impressive GPAs or took more difficult classes. They used to have higher SAT scores and perfectly groomed resumes, applied at higher rates, but were overrepresented even when those things were taken into account. For applicants with the same SAT or ACT score, children from families in the top 1% were 34% more likely to be admitted than the average applicant, and children in the top 0.1% were more than twice as likely to be admitted. be admitted.

The admission rate to elite universities among students with the same test scores

The data comes from at least three of the top 12 universities where researchers had access to detailed admissions data.

Study - accChance outlook, a group of Harvard economists devoted to the study of inequality, quantifies for the first time how highly someone scores on selective university admissions.

Opanalyzeis based on federal university attendance records and income tax data of nearly all students from 1999-2015 and standardized test scores from 2001-2015. It targets eight Ivy League universities and Stanford, Duke, M.I.T. and the University of Chicago. It adds a remarkable new dataset: anonymous, detailed internal admissions reviews from at least three of the 12 universities, covering half a million applicants. (The researchers did not name the universities sharing the data, nor specify how many did, as they were promised anonymity.)

New data shows that among students with the same test scores, universities favored children of graduates and enlisted athletes, and children of private schools gave higher extra-academic scores. The result is the clearest picture yet of how America's elite universities perpetuate the intergenerational transfer of wealth and opportunity.

"What I took from this study is that the Ivy League doesn't have low-income students because they don't want low-income students," he said.Zuzanna Dynarska, an economist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who reviewed the data and was not involved in the research.

In fact, the study found, affirmative action policies were in the top 1 percent of children whose parents earn more than $611,000 a year. This is when universities are forced to rethink their admissions procedures after graduation.Judgment of the Supreme Courtthat affirmative action based on race is unconstitutional.

"Are these highly selective private universities in America taking kids from influential, very high-income families and basically guiding them to stay on top for the next generation?" proverbRaj Chetty, a Harvard economist who directs Opportunity Insights and author of an article fromJohn N Friedmanof bronze andDavid J. Demingfrom Harvard. "If we turn this question on its head, can we possibly differentiate who's in charge in our society by changing who gets in?"

Representatives from several universities said that income inequality was an urgent priority and that since 2015, when survey data ran out, they had taken important steps to admit first-generation and low-income students. These include free education for families earning less than a certain amount; only give grants, not loans, as part of financial aid; and active recruitment of students from underprivileged secondary schools.

“We believe there is talent in all sectors of the US income distribution,” said Princeton president Christopher L. Eisgruber. "I'm proud of what we've done to increase socioeconomic diversity in Princeton, but I also believe we need to do more and will do more."

Positive action for the wealthy

In unanimous opinionJudge Neil Gorsuch spoke of affirmative actionthe practice of cronyismchildren of graduates and donors, to whomever it appliesnew case. "Although these preferences are also racially neutral, they undoubtedly benefit the wealthiest white candidates the most," he wrote.

The new paper did not include admission rates by major becauseprevious researchit was, the researchers said. They found that racial differences had no impact on the results. Only looking at candidates of one race, for example, those from the highest income families still hadbenefit. However, the top 1 percent is predominantly white. Someanalysts suggesteddifferentiate by class as a means of achieving greater racial diversity without affirmative action.

New data showed that other private universities like Northwestern, N.Y.U. and Notre Dame had an equally disproportionate number of children from wealthy families. Flagship public universities were much more fair. In places like the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Virginia, applicants with high-income parents were admitted no more than low-income applicants with similar scores.

Less than 1 percent of American students attend 12 elite universities. But the group plays a major role in American society, with 12 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and a quarter of US senators participating. So did 13 percent of the top 0.1 percent of earners. The researchers argue that the focus on these universities is justified because they provide avenues to power and influence, and that diversifying the number of students could change the way America makes decisions.

Researchers conducted a new analysis to gauge whether they should study at one of these universitiescausesgood luck later in life. They compared students who were on the waiting list and enrolled with students who did not and went to another university. in accordance withprevious researchfound that participation in Ivy rather than one of the nine major public flagship programs did not, on average, significantly increase graduate earnings. Anyway, thisofincreasing the student's predicted chance of winning in the first group from 1 percent to 19 percent from 12 percent.

For non-wage outcomes, the effect was even greater: it nearly doubled the estimated likelihood of attending top graduate schools and tripled the estimated likelihood of working at companies considered prestigious, such as national news organizations and hospital research.

- Of course, it is a small part of the schools - said Professor Dynarski, who didtestadmission to university andwork withUniversity of Michigan in increasing the number of low-income students, and an occasional contributor to The New York Times. "But representation is important, and that shows what a big difference the Ivies make: the political elite, the economic elite, the intellectual elite come from these schools."

The Lost Middle Class

According to the study, benefits for wealthy applicants varied by college: At Dartmouth, students in the top 0.1 percent were five times more likely to go to college than the average applicant with the same test score, while at M.I.T. they were no longer willing to participate. (The fact that children from higher-income families tend to score higher on standardized tests and are more likely to receive private training suggests the study may be underestimating their benefit in admission.)

Representation in proportion to the share of the population

Here is the income distribution of students from a1500 or more on SAT.On average, the richest children do better.

Butstudents from elite universitiesthey are even more unequally distributed, especially among students from wealthier families.

Students have the most advantage with 1%. of the richest families: at elite universities they make up 1 in 6 students.

Compared to students from A1300 or more— a more representative set of results for these schools — the difference is even greater.

An applicant with a high test score from a family making less than $68,000 a year was also more likely to get in than the average applicant, although there were far fewer such applicants.

Children from upper-middle and middle-class families, including those attending public high schools in high-income neighborhoods, have submitted a large number of applications. But on an individual basis, they were less likely to be admitted than wealthier or lesser poorer students with the same test scores. Data in that senseconfirm the impressionamong many simply wealthy parents is sending their children to elite universitiesget harder.

"We had these very skewed schedules of a lot of Pell kids and a lot of unnecessary kids and the medium was gone," said the Ivy League dean of admissions, who saw the new numbers and spoke anonymously so he could speak openly about the process. "You're not going to win a PR battle saying you have X families making over $200,000 and eligible for financial aid."

Researchers were able to see where they applied and attended for nearly all students in the United States between 1999 and 2015, their SAT or ACT scores, and whether they received a Pell Grant for low-income students. They were also able to see their parents' tax records, which allowed them to look at income support in more detail than any previous study. They conducted the analysis using anonymous data.

For a few elite universities that also shared internal admissions data, they were able to see other aspects of student applications between 2001 and 2015, including the assessment of admissions agencies. They focused their analysis on recent years, from 2011 to 2015.

While they had this data for a minority of a dozen top universities, the researchers said they were representative of the other universities in the group (with the exception of MIT). Other universities admitted more students from high-income families, showed a preference for inheritance and recruited athletes, and described similar practices in interviews with researchers.

“No one has such data; It's completely unheard of," he said.miguel bastedo, a professor at the University of Michigan College of Education who has done excellent research on college admissions. "I think it's very important that efforts to reform the system in good faith start with being able to look at the data honestly and honestly."

How the wealthiest students benefit

Prior to this study, it was clear that universities were admitting more affluent students, but whether this was simply because more applicants were applying was unclear. That's part of what a new study found: One-third of the difference in attendance rates was because middle-class students were a littleless often applicableor sign up. But the most important factor was that these universities were more likely to accept the richest applicants.

hereditary parties

The biggest advantage of the 1%preference for heirs. The survey showed, for the first time on such a scale, that tenders were generally better qualified than the average applicant. But even when comparing applicants who were similar in every other way, legacy still prevailed.

Admission benefit for children of graduates of selected elite universities

Among students with the same test scores

When high-income applicants applied to the college their parents attended, they were admitted at significantly higher rates than applicants with similar qualifications, but at the other top 12 colleges, they were no more likely to get in.

"It's not an afterthought, it's not just a symbolic problem," Professor Bastedo said of the discovery.


One in eight admitted students in the top 1 percent was a recruited athlete. For the bottom 60 percent, it was 1 in 20. That's mainly becausechildren from wealthy familiessynmore such asto exercise,especially the more exclusive sportspracticed in some universities, such as rowing and fencing. The study estimated that athletes were taken four times more often than non-athletes with the same qualifications.

Percentage of admitted students who were recruited athletes at selected elite universities

Athletes recruited from elite universities were much more likely to come from higher-income households.

"There's a common misconception that it's about basketball and football and low-income kids going to selective colleges," Professor Bastedo said. "But recruiting leaders know that athletes tend to be richer, so it's a win-win situation."

non-academic degrees

There was a third factor driving preference for the wealthiest applicants. Colleges in the study usually give applicantsnumerical resultsfor academic performance and more subjectivelynon-academic virtues, Howactivities, volunteering and personality traits. Students in the top 1 percent with the same test scores did not score higher on their studies. But they had much higher non-academic degrees.

Share high marks

Among students with the same test scores

At a university that shared admissions data, students in the top 0.1 percent were 1.5 times more likely to earn high extra-graduate grades than middle-class students. The researchers said that given the differences in how each school rates non-academic qualifications, they found similar patterns among other universities that shared data.

Admissions boards that awarded higher grades to non-religious private high school students had the largest share. They were twice as likely to be admitted as comparable students (those with the same SAT scores, race, gender, and parental income) from public schools in high-income neighborhoods. It was an important factoradvice from a professional adviserand private high school teachers.

"The parents say the kid signed up because he was the orchestra's first president, he was running down the track," he said.John Morganelli Jr., former director of admissions at Cornell and founder of Ivy League Admissions, where he advises high school students on how to apply for college. "They never say what's really going on: Was the guidance counselor in favor of this child?"

He said letters of recommendation from private school counselors are notoriously florid, and counselorscall admissions officers about some students.

"That's how high schools are built," he said. “No one is calling on behalf of a low-to-middle-income student. Most public school counselors don't even know these phones exist."

End of blind games?

Overall, the study suggests that if elite colleges eliminated preferences for heirs, athletes and private school students, kids in the top 1% would make up 10% of the class, compared to 16% in college years.

He found that old students, athletes, and private school students did no better after college when it came to making money or getting into a top university or company. In fact, they tend to do worse.

The dean of admissions, speaking anonymously, said it was easier said than done to make the change: "I would say there is a lot more to it than you might think. It's just that the solution is very complicated and if we could, we would."

For example, it is not possible to employ athletes across the income spectrum when many college sports are played almost exclusively by children from high-income families. Legacy students may be the hardest, the dean of admissions said, because they are often highly educated and their admission is important for maintaining strong connections with graduates.

Ending this preference, the person said, "isn't an easy decision given the alumni reaction, especially when you're not in direct competition with the rest of the Ivies." (Although children from very large donors are also treated with special attention by emergency departments, they were not included in the analysis because they are relatively few.)

Recruitment stakeholders say achieving greater economic diversity would be difficult without doing one more thing: end admissions for the blind, a practice that prevents admissions officers from seeing families' financial information, thus their ability to pay is not a factor. Some colleges are already doing what they call "need-affirmation admissions" to select more students at the lower end of the income spectrum, though they often don't admit it publicly for fear of retaliation.

there is a toolLandscapethe College Board, ahelp determinewhether the applicant grew up in a neighborhood of significant privilege or deprivation. But these colleges have no knowledge of parents' income unless students apply for financial aid.

Ivy League universities and their peers have recently createdconsiderable effortsrecruitmore low-income studentsand finance education. Several now offer completely free admission to families below a certain income: $100,000 for Stanford and Princeton, $85,000 for Harvard, and $60,000 for Brown.

At Princeton, one-fifth of students now come from low-income families, and one-fourth receive full-time travel. Recentlyresumed the transfer programrecruit students and low-income communities. At Harvard this fall, a quarter of freshmen will come from families earning less than $85,000 and paying nothing. Most freshmen will receive some help.

Dartmouth was just made$500 millionto provide financial support: "While we respect the work of Harvard Opportunity Insights, we believe our commitment to these investments and our 2015 admissions policies tell an important story about the socioeconomic diversity among Dartmouth students," said Jana Barnello, a spokeswoman .

Public flagships recruit differently, in a way that wealthy students benefit less. UCLA schools prohibit giving priority to bequests or donors, and some, such as UCLA, do not consider letters of recommendation. The app asks for household income and colleges get detailed information about high schools in California. App readers are trained to consider students' circumstances, such as whether they worked in high school to support their families, such as "proofmaturity, determination and insight.

So does the University of California systemworks with schoolsin the state, from pre-K to community college tostudent supportwho encounter obstacles. There is a strong charter school transfer program in California; at UCLA, half are low-income.

MIT, which differs from elite private schools in that it hardly favors wealthy students,it has long had a practice of disadvantagefor senior applicants, the dean of admissions said:Stuart Smit. It recruits athletes, but they don't get favored or go through a separate recruiting process (as long as it can frustrate coaches, he said).

“I think the most important thing is that talent is shared equally, but opportunities are not, and our admissions process is designed to take into account the different opportunities students have based on their income,” he said. "It's really up to our process to figure out the difference between talent and privilege."


Do applicants from wealthy families have a better chance in the college admissions process? ›

Opportunity Insights, a group of Harvard economists, analyzed data from 12 of the country's top colleges from 1999 to 2015. They found that among students with the same test scores, applicants with families in the top 1 percent of earners were 34 percent more likely to be accepted.

What do elite universities look for? ›

Top universities look for students who have pursued their interests and passions outside of the classroom and have demonstrated leadership and teamwork skills. It's important to choose activities that show leadership, reflect your interests and showcase your strengths.

What is an elitist university? ›

In our distinctions, "elite" refers to the approximately 75 schools with the most restrictive admissions criteria. These colleges generally accept fewer than 30 percent of all applicants and have a highly selective reputation to match.

How are students admitted to prestigious universities in the USA? ›

Most colleges consider grades and class rigor top factors in the admissions process. High SAT/ACT scores can impress admissions committees, even at test-optional schools. Students can demonstrate interest by applying early decision and visiting the campus.

Are rich people more likely to get into college? ›

Among students with the same SAT or ACT scores who apply to Ivy League schools (and also Stanford, Duke, M.I.T. and the University of Chicago), those whose families are in the top 1% of affluent households are 34% more likely to get in than the average applicant.

Are rich people more likely to go to college? ›

Admissions in a world after race-based affirmative action

Even in this world, as Chetty and his colleagues found in a previous study, kids from the richest 1% of American families were 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy League college than those from families in the bottom fifth of the income distribution.

Are elite universities worth it? ›

Among the most cited research on the subject — a paper by economists from the RAND Corporation and Brigham Young and Cornell Universities — found that “strong evidence emerges of a significant economic return to attending an elite private institution, and some evidence suggests this premium has increased over time.”

What are the benefits of prestigious universities? ›

5 Benefits of Studying in a Top University
  • High academic standards. In top universities, you will receive an education that is higher in quality compared to others. ...
  • Resources and facilities. ...
  • Influential network. ...
  • Employment opportunities. ...
  • Community.

What do you need to do to get into an elite college? ›

They take the most difficult courses in high school, earn the best grades and the highest, if not perfect, SAT or ACT scores and ensure that their extracurricular activities are such that they stand out in anyone's mind.

What is the problem with elite universities? ›

It can cost more. Elite schools are magnets for brilliant students who are primarily from high-income families. If you fall into that category, you are likely to be charged more. Elite institutions typically charge more and offer fewer merit scholarships, if they offer any at all.

How do you know if a university is prestigious? ›

However, a university can generally be deemed prestigious when several attributes are present. Perhaps the most important is reputation. A university with a good reputation historically and consistently receives accolades in research and academics and produces high-performing graduates.

Why are elite universities so expensive? ›

Rising Operating Costs

And it helps little that universities tend to hire highly educated people, who command high salaries. In fact, most institutions of higher education spend much of their funding on compensation and, as tuition fees increase, so do their payouts (AAUP, 2018).

What is the most important factor in college admissions? ›

Courses and Grades

A student's grades in college-preparatory classes remain the most significant factor in college admission decisions.

Do you need to go to a prestigious college to be successful? ›

I am not against being a good student, and there are clear advantages to doing well in school. But you don't need to be a top student or go to a highly selective college to have a successful and fulfilling life. The path to success is not nearly so narrow as we think.

What do US universities look for in students? ›

Good Grades

Earning good grades is the most critical factor for college applications. You should learn the average grade point average (GPA) of students accepted to the college(s) you will apply to and aim to accomplish the same or better. Showing improvement in your GPA over time can also make a positive impression.

Does family income affect college admissions? ›

In summary, the short answer is income can affect college admissions. Being a full pay student can benefit you based on the school and their available funds. That's not to say that you should go to a school that you and your parents can't afford and that's going to put you in incredible debt.

Is it easier to get into college if your parents are alumni? ›

The more involved parents are with their alma mater, the more likely your child will receive an admissions boost. Admissions offices will look at the alums history of financial contributions, service on boards, work as an alumni interviewer, etc.

Is it easier to get into an Ivy League if your parents went there? ›

Ivy League universities tend to be very difficult to get into, and students of graduates have a much better chance of being accepted than students whose parents did not attend there.

Is it easier to get into a college if a family member went there? ›

Colleges have a couple reasons for giving preference to legacy applicants, both having to do with loyalty to the school: Future Donors. When a family includes more than one person who attended a college, it's likely that the family has greater-than-average loyalty to the school.


Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Terence Hammes MD

Last Updated: 11/16/2023

Views: 5763

Rating: 4.9 / 5 (69 voted)

Reviews: 92% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Terence Hammes MD

Birthday: 1992-04-11

Address: Suite 408 9446 Mercy Mews, West Roxie, CT 04904

Phone: +50312511349175

Job: Product Consulting Liaison

Hobby: Jogging, Motor sports, Nordic skating, Jigsaw puzzles, Bird watching, Nordic skating, Sculpting

Introduction: My name is Terence Hammes MD, I am a inexpensive, energetic, jolly, faithful, cheerful, proud, rich person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.