Examination of admissions data for elite universities suggests that being very rich is its own qualification (2023)

ByAtish Bhatia,Claire Cain Milleryjose katz

Elite universities have long been filled with children from the wealthiest families: At Ivy League schools, one in six students has parents in the top 1 percent.

INfantastic new study, released Monday, shows that it wasn't because these kids had more impressive GPAs or took harder classes. They tended to have higher SAT scores and finely honed resumes, and they applied at a higher rate, but they were overrepresented even after accounting for those things. For applicants with the same SAT or ACT scores, children from families in the top 1 percent were 34 percent more likely to be admitted than the average applicant, and those in the top 0.1 percent were more than twice as likely to come in.

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 the researchers had access to detailed recordings.

The survey - byOpportunities prospects, a Harvard-based group of economists who study inequality, quantifies for the first time how much being very rich affects one's own score on selective college admissions.

Heanalyseis based on federal 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 and anonymous internal admissions assessments of at least three of the 12 universities covering half a million applicants. (The researchers did not name the universities that shared data or specify how many did so because they were promised anonymity.)

The new data shows that among students with the same test scores, universities gave preference to children of alumni and recruited athletes and gave private school children higher non-academic scores. The result is the clearest picture yet of how America's elite universities are perpetuating the intergenerational transition of wealth and opportunity.

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

In reality, the study found, these policies amounted to affirmative action for the children of the top 1 percent whose parents earn more than $611,000 a year. It happens when universities are forced to rethink their post-graduate admissions processes.The judgment of the Supreme Courtthat affirmative action based on race is unconstitutional.

"Are these highly selective private universities in America taking kids from very high-income, influential families and basically channeling them to stay at the top for the next generation?" sayingRaj Chetty, a Harvard economist who runs Opportunity Insights and co-authored the articleJohn N. Friedmanof brown andDavid J. Demingfrom Harvard. "By turning that question on its head, could we potentially diversify who is in a leadership position in our society by changing who gets admitted?"

Representatives from several of the universities said that income diversity was an urgent priority and that they had taken significant steps since 2015, when student data ends, to admit first-generation and low-income students. These include making tuition free for families earning less than a certain amount; provide only grants, not loans, in financial assistance; and active recruitment of students from disadvantaged secondary schools.

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

Affirmative Action for the rich

In a concurring opinionin the affirmative action case, Justice Neil Gorsuch addressedpractice of favoritismchildren of alumni and donors, which are also subjecta new case. "While also race-neutral, these preferences undoubtedly benefit affluent white applicants the most," he wrote.

The new document did not contain admission rates by major becauseprevious studyit had, the researchers said. They found that racial differences did not drive the results. Looking only at applicants of one race, for example, those from the families with the highest incomes still hadadvantageous. However, the top 1 percent is predominantly white. Someanalysts have suggesteddiversify by class as a way to achieve more racial diversity without affirmative action.

The new data showed that other selective private universities, such as Northwestern, N.Y.U. and Notre Dame, had an equally disproportionate share of children from wealthy families. Public flagship universities were much fairer. 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 low-income applicants with comparable scores.

Less than 1 percent of American college students attend the 12 elite universities. But the group plays a huge role in American society: 12 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and a quarter of U.S. senators attended. So did 13 percent of the top 0.1 percent of wage earners. The focus on these universities is justified, the researchers say, because they provide pathways to power and influence, and diversifying who attends has the potential to change who makes decisions in America.

The researchers conducted a new analysis to measure whether they should attend one of these universitiesreasonssuccess later in life. They compared students who were on the waiting list and got in with those who didn't and went to another university. In accordance withprevious study, found that attending an Ivy instead of one of the top nine major public programs did not, on average, increase graduates' earnings. At least thatthe thereincrease a student's predicted probability of winning 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 probability of attending a top graduate school and tripled the estimated probability of working at companies considered prestigious, such as national news organizations and hospitals.

"Yes, it is a small part of the schools," said Professor Dynarski, who hasexaminationcollege admissions andworked withUniversity of Michigan in Increasing Participation of Low-Income Students and has occasionally contributed to The New York Times. "But it's important to have representation, and it shows what a big difference the Ivies make: The political elite, the economic elite, the intellectual elite come out of these schools."

The disappearing middle class

The advantage for wealthy applicants varied from university to university, according to the study: At Dartmouth, students in the top 0.1 percent were five times more likely to attend than the average applicant with the same test score while at M.I.T. they were not more likely 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 that the study may actually underestimate their access advantage.)

Representation in relation to population share

Here is the income distribution for students with a1500 or higher on the SAT.On average, the richest children do better.

Menstudents at elite universitiesthey are even more unequally distributed, especially for students from wealthier families.

The biggest advantage goes to students from the richest 1 percent of families: they make up 1 in 6 students at elite universities.

Compared to students with a1300 or higher— a more representative set of scores for these schools — the difference is even greater.

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

Children from upper-middle and middle-class families, including those attending public high schools in high-income neighborhoods, submitted large numbers of applications. But individually, they were less likely to be admitted than wealthier students or, to a lesser extent, poorer students with the same test scores. In that sense, the data isconfirm the feelingamong many simply wealthy parents, that is to send their children to elite universitiesharder and harder.

"We had these very skewed distributions of a lot of Pell kids and a lot of unnecessary kids, and the medium disappeared," said an Ivy League admissions dean who saw the new data and spoke anonymously so he could talk openly about the process. "You're not going to win a PR battle by saying you have X number of families making more than $200,000 that qualify for financial aid."

The researchers were able to see, for nearly every college student in the United States from 1999 to 2015, who applied and attended, their SAT or ACT scores and whether they received a Pell grant for low-income students. They were also able to view their parents' income tax records, allowing them to look at earnings assistance in more detail than any previous study. They performed the analysis using anonymous data.

For the several 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 offices. They focused their analysis on the most recent years, 2011 to 2015.

Although they had these data for a minority of a dozen or so top universities, the researchers said they believed they were representative of the other universities in the group (with the exception of M.I.T.). The other universities admitted more students from high-income families, showed preferences for legacy and recruited athletes, and described similar admissions practices in conversations with researchers, they said.

“Nobody has that kind of 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 really important that good faith efforts to reform the system start with being able to look at the data honestly and honestly."

How do the wealthiest students benefit?

Before this study, it was clear that universities were admitting more wealthy students, but whether this was simply because more were applying was not known. That's part of it, the new study found: A third of the difference in attendance rates was due to middle-class students being somewhatless likely to useor register. But the most important factor was that these universities were more likely to accept the wealthiest applicants.

legate recordings

The biggest advantage for the 1 percent waspreference for inheritance. The study showed, for the first time on this scale, that grantees were overall more qualified than the average applicant. But even when comparing applicants who were similar in all other respects, the legacies still had an advantage.

Access benefit for children of alumni at selected elite universities

Among students with the same test results

When high-income applicants applied to the college their parents attended, they were accepted at much higher rates than similarly qualified applicants, but at the other top 12 colleges, they were no more likely to get in.

"This is not a sideshow, it is not just a symbolic problem," Professor Bastedo said of the find.


One in eight admitted students from the top 1 percent was a recruited athlete. For the bottom 60 percent, that number was one in 20. This is largely becausechildren from wealthy familiessonmore likeplay sports,especially more exclusive sportsplayed at certain universities, such as rowing and fencing. The study estimated that athletes were enrolled at four times the rate of non-athletes with the same qualifications.

Proportion 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 getting into selective colleges," Professor Bastedo said. "But enrollment managers know that athletes tend to be wealthier, so it's a win-win."

non-academic grades

There was a third factor driving the preference for the wealthiest applicants. Colleges in the study generally provide applicantsnumerical scoresfor academic performance and for more subjective onesnon-academic virtues, asleisure activities, voluntary work and personality traits. Students in the top 1 percent with the same test results did not score higher academically. But they had significantly higher non-academic grades.

Proportion gets high marks

Among students with the same test results

At one of the universities that shared admissions data, students in the top 0.1 percent were 1.5 times more likely to have high non-academic grades than those in the middle class. The researchers said that, taking into account differences in how each school evaluates non-academic credentials, they found similar patterns at the other universities that shared data.

The biggest contributor was admissions committees that gave higher grades to students from non-religious private colleges. They were twice as likely to be admitted as similar students, those with the same SAT scores, race, gender and parental income, from public schools in high-income neighborhoods. An important factor wasthe supervisors' recommendationsand private high school teachers.

"The parents say one kid signed up because he was the first president of the orchestra, he ran on the field," 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 to college. "They never say what's really going on: Does the counselor advocate for that child?"

Letters of recommendation from private school counselors are notoriously booming, he said, and counselorscall admissions officers about certain students.

"That's how colleges are made," he said. "No one is calling on behalf of a low- or middle-income student. Most public school counselors don't even know these calls exist."

The end of blind admissions?

Overall, the study suggests that if elite colleges had eliminated preferences for legacies, athletes and private school students, the kids in the top 1 percent would have made up 10 percent of a class, up from 16 percent during college years.

Older students, athletes and private school students do not fare better after college, in terms of earnings or getting into a top graduate school or company, he found. In fact, they usually do worse.

The dean of admissions, who spoke anonymously, said the change was easier said than done: "I would say there's a lot more commitment to this than maybe is obvious. It's just that the solution is really complicated and if we could had done it, we would have done it.'

For example, it is not possible to cast athletes across the income spectrum if many college sports are played almost exclusively by children from high-income families. Scholarships are perhaps the most difficult, the admissions dean said, because they are often highly qualified and their admission is important to maintaining strong ties to alumni.

To conclude this preference, the person said, "it's not an easy decision to make, given the response from alumni, especially if you're not in immediate competition with the rest of the Ivies." (Although children of very large donors are also given special consideration by the admissions offices, they were not included in the analysis because they are relatively few).

Admissions advocates say it would be difficult to achieve greater financial diversity without doing one more thing: ending need-blind admissions, the practice that prevents admissions officers from seeing families' financial information so their ability to pay is not a factor. Some colleges already do what they call "affirmative need admissions" to select more students from the lower end of the income spectrum, though they often don't acknowledge this publicly for fear of retaliation.

there is a toolLandscapedel College Board, andhelp decidewhether an applicant grew up in a neighborhood of considerable privilege or hardship. However, these colleges have no knowledge of the parents' income if students do not apply for financial aid.

Ivy League universities and their peers have recently madeconsiderable effortrecruitmore low-income studentsand grants for education. Several now make attendance completely free for families below a certain income: $100,000 at Stanford and Princeton, $85,000 at Harvard, and $60,000 at Brown.

At Princeton, a fifth of students now come from low-income families and a quarter get a full ride. recentlyre-established a transfer programto recruit low-income and community college students. At Harvard, a quarter of the fall freshman class comes from families making less than $85,000 who pay nothing. Most beginners will receive some amount of help.

Dartmouth just created500 million dollarsto expand financial aid: "While we respect the work of Harvard Opportunity Insights, we believe our commitment to these investments and our admissions policies since 2015 tell an important story about socioeconomic diversity among Dartmouth students," said Jana Barnello, a spokeswoman.

Public flagships do admissions differently, in a way that ends up benefiting affluent students less. University of California schools prohibit giving preference to endowments or donors, and some, like U.C.L.A., do not consider letters of recommendation. The application asks for family income and colleges get detailed information about California colleges. The app's readers are trained to consider students' circumstances, such as whether they worked to support their families in high school, such asproofof maturity, determination and insight.”

The University of California system as wellpartners with the schoolsin the state, from pre-K to community college tosupport the studentswho face barriers. There is a strong program for transfer students from California community colleges; at U.C.L.A. half are low-income.

MIT, which stands out among elite private schools for almost no preference for wealthy students,has long had the practice of not giving preferenceto older applicants, his admissions dean said,stuart smith. It recruits athletes, but they don't receive any preferences or go through a separate admissions process (as much as that can frustrate coaches, he said).

"I think the most important thing here is that talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not, and our admissions process is designed to account for the different opportunities students have based on their income," he said. "It's really up to our process to uncover the difference between talent and privilege."


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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 is the hardest university to get into in US? ›

Niche, a ranking and review site, recently published its list of the “2023 Hardest Colleges to Get Into.” Using data from the U.S. Department of Education on various colleges' acceptance rates and SAT/ACT scores, they found, unsurprisingly, Harvard University to be the most difficult college to get into.

Why are American universities so hard to get into? ›

Together, these factors–the increases in selectivity, the focus on rankings, the intensified stress on test scores, the lack of clarity around each school's enrollment priorities–has made the college admissions landscape feel treacherous, littered with obstacles to potentially thwart applicants' aspirations.

What matters most in college admissions? ›

Courses and Grades

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

What do highly selective colleges look for in applicants? ›

Many applicants to highly selective colleges have perfect GPAs, strong performance in AP and IB courses, sky-high SAT and ACT scores, amazing extracurricular and leadership resumes, enthusiastic letters of recommendation, and compelling personal statements.

What awards look good on college applications? ›

Examples of academic awards include, but are not limited to:
  • AP Scholar.
  • Any “honor society” such as, International Thespian Society, National Honor Society, etc.
  • Honor Roll.
  • National Language Exam Recognition.
  • National Merit Award.
  • President's Award.
  • School subject-based award.

What do you need 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 average GPA for elite colleges? ›

However, for college applicants, the average GPA is more likely between 3.5 and 4.0. If you're aiming for a top university such as one in the Ivy League, Stanford, MIT, or others of the same caliber, a 4.0 GPA — or close to it — is expected.

What do colleges find most impressive? ›

In addition to key personality traits, such as ambition, passion, genuine interest, and academic curiosity, what looks really good on a college application? In general, a great application will have most or all of the following elements: A high GPA (relative to what admitted students have) and a rigorous curriculum.

What characteristics do Ivy Leagues look for? ›

Ivy League schools are looking for people who stick out from the crowd, experts in their area of interest. They're searching for students who have transformed their big dreams into even bigger realities. Ivy League colleges want world-changers who are making positive marks on society with their resources.


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