Being very rich is a qualification in itself, study of elite college admissions data shows (2023)

DoorAtish Bhatia,Claire Kane MillerexistJose Katz

Elite colleges have long been crowded with children from the wealthiest families: At an Ivy League school, one in six students has parents who are in the top 1 percent.

Amajor new researchThe report, released Monday, suggests that's not because the kids had more impressive grade point averages or took harder classes. They often have higher SAT scores and polished resumes and apply faster, but even accounting for these factors, they are still overrepresented. For applicants with the same SAT or ACT scores, children from families in the top 1% were 34% more likely to be admitted than average applicants, while children from families in the top 0.1% were more likely to be admitted than average applicants twice as much. .

Acceptance rate of prestigious schools with equivalent test scores

Data came from at least three of the 12 top universities for which the researchers had detailed admissions data.

The study - throughopportunity insightFor the first time, a group of Harvard University economists studying inequality has quantified how affluence itself qualifies for college admissions.

ofanalyzeBased on federal college attendance and parental income tax data for nearly all students from 1999 to 2015, and standardized test scores from 2001 to 2015. It focuses on eight Ivy League universities, as well as Stanford, Duke, and MIT. and the University of Chicago. It adds a remarkable new dataset: detailed, anonymized internal admissions reviews of at least 3 of 12 colleges, covering 500,000 applicants. (The researchers did not name the universities that shared the data or specify how many universities shared the data, pledging to remain anonymous.)

Among students with the same test scores, colleges favor the children of alumni and recruited athletes, while children at private schools give higher non-academic scores, new data shows. The result is the clearest picture yet of how America's elite universities have enabled an intergenerational transfer of wealth and opportunity.

"My takeaway from this study is that an Ivy League school doesn't have low-income students because it doesn't want low-income students," he said.Susan DynarskiEconomists at the Harvard Graduate School of Education reviewed the data but were not involved in the study.

In fact, studies have found that these policies amount to affirmative action for the children of the 1 percent of the population whose parents earn more than $611,000 a year. This is because colleges are being forced to rethink their admissions procedures.supreme court rulingAffirmative action based on race is unconstitutional.

"Are these highly selective private colleges in the U.S. taking kids from high-income, influential families and basically guiding them to stay ahead in the next generation?" saysRaj ChettyEconomist at Harvard University, responsible for Opportunity Insights, co-author of the paperJohn Friedmanfrom brown andDavid J. Demingfrom Harvard University. "If we turned this question upside down, might we be able to diversify the people in leadership positions in our society by changing who gets admitted?"

Representatives from several universities said that income diversity is a top priority, and that they have taken significant steps to enroll low-income and first-generation students since the 2015 study data ended. These include waiving tuition fees for families whose income is below a certain amount; providing only grants, not loans as financial aid; and actively enrolling poor middle school students.

“We believe there are talented people across the spectrum of the income distribution in the United States,” said Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber. “I am proud of our efforts to increase socioeconomic diversity at Princeton, but I also believe we need to do more — and we will.”


unanimous opinionIn affirmative action case, Judge Neil Gorsuch rulesfavoritismChildren of alumni and donors also receive attentiona new case. “While ostensibly race-neutral, these preferences undoubtedly benefit white and wealthy applicants the most,” he wrote.

New paper doesn't include admissions rates by race becauseprevious studiesThat's already been done, the researchers say. They found that racial differences did not determine the outcome. For example, if we only look at applicants from one race, applicants from the highest income families still havean advantage. However, the top 1% of the population is predominantly white. Someanalyst recommendationClass diversity is a way to achieve greater racial diversity without affirmative action.

Other selective private universities, such as Northwestern University and New York University, new data show. And at Notre Dame, there is a similar disproportionate number of children from wealthy families. Flagship public universities are far more equitable. At schools 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 applicants with lower incomes but comparable scores.

Less than 1% of U.S. students attend these 12 elite universities. But the group plays a huge role in American society: 12 percent of Fortune 500 executives and a quarter of U.S. senators participate. So did 13 percent of the top 0.1 percent. The focus on these universities is warranted because they provide access to power and influence, and the diversity of their enrollments has the potential to transform U.S. policymakers, the researchers said.

Researchers conducted a new analysis to measure whether they attended one of these collegesreasonsucceed in later life. They compared those students who were on the waitlist and got in with those who didn't get into another college. match withprevious studiesThey found that attending an Ivy League university rather than a top-nine public flagship school did not significantly increase average graduate earnings. However, itdeedIncrease the predicted chance of a student earning in the top 1% from 12% to 19%.

For outcomes other than income, the effect was even larger: the estimated probability of attending a top school almost doubled, and the estimated probability of working at a prestigious company such as a national news organization and a research hospital tripled.

"Of course, this is only a small number of schools," Professor Dynarski said.studiedinto college andHad withThe University of Michigan works to improve attendance among low-income students and occasionally contributes to The New York Times. “But having representation is important, and it shows how much influence the Ivy League schools have: the political elite, the economic elite, the intellectual elite come from these schools.”

missing middle class

The benefits to wealthy applicants varied by college, the study found: At Dartmouth, students from the top 0.1 percent were five times more likely to enroll than average applicants with the same test scores, while at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They no longer want to participate. (The fact that kids from higher-income families tend to have higher standardized test scores and are more likely to receive private tutoring suggests that the study may be underestimating their admissions advantage.)

Representativeness Relative to Population Ratio

This is the student's income distributionSAT 1500 or higher.On average, wealthier kids fared better.

butstudents at elite universitiesDistribution is more unequal, especially among students from the wealthiest families.

The biggest beneficiaries are students from the wealthiest 1% of families: they make up one in six students at elite universities.

compared to students with1300 or higher-- a more representative set of scores for these schools -- the variance is even greater.

Applicants with higher test scores from households earning less than $68,000 per year were also more likely than average applicants to be admitted, although there were fewer such applicants.

Children from upper-middle-class families — including those in public high schools in high-income neighborhoods — have applied in large numbers. But individually, they are less likely to be admitted than the wealthiest students, or to a lesser extent, the poorest students, given the same test scores. In this sense, the dataconfirmed the feelingMany Simply Wealthy Parents Are Enrolling Their Kids in Elite Collegesmore and more difficult

“We have a very uneven distribution of a lot of Pell kids and a lot of kids who don’t need them, and the kids in the middle are missing,” said an Ivy League admissions director who has seen the new data and spoke on condition of anonymity. about the conversation process. "You're not going to win a PR battle if you say you have X families making over $200,000 a year and qualifying for financial aid."

The researchers were able to look at the SAT or ACT scores of nearly all U.S. students who applied and enrolled between 1999 and 2015, as well as whether they received Pell Scholarships for low-income students. They were also able to view parents' income tax records, which allowed them to analyze attendance by income in more detail than any previous study. They use anonymous data for analysis.

For several elite colleges that also share internal admissions data, they can see other aspects of student applications between 2001 and 2015, including how admissions agencies rated them. Their analysis focused on the most recent years, from 2011 to 2015.

Although they had data for a small number of universities in the top 12, the researchers said they believed the data was representative of the rest of the group (with the exception of MIT). Other universities admit more students from higher-income families, show preferences for legacy and recruit athletes, they said, and described similar admissions practices in conversations with the researchers.

"Nobody has this kind of data; it's completely unheard of," saidMichael PastedoProfessor at the University of Michigan School of Education and author of outstanding research on college admissions. "I think it's really important to sincerely try to reform the system to start looking at the data honestly and candidly."

How the wealthiest students benefit

Before this study, it was clear that colleges were admitting more wealthier students, but it wasn't clear whether that was simply because more people were applying. That's part of it, new research suggests: A third of the difference in attendance is due to a slight decline in enrollment among middle-class students.unlikely to applyor sign up. But the more important factor is that these colleges are more likely to accept the wealthiest applicants.

legacy recording

The biggest benefit of the 1% ispreference for legacy. The study shows for the first time that estate heirs are generally better qualified than ordinary applicants. But even when comparing otherwise similar applicants, bequests still have an advantage.

Entrance discount for children of selected elite university alumni

among students with the same test scores

When high-income applicants apply to the colleges their parents attend, they are admitted at a much higher rate than other applicants with similar qualifications, but they are not as likely to be accepted at other top-ten colleges.

"It's not a secondary problem, it's not just a token one," Professor Bastedo said of the discovery.


One-eighth of the top 1 percent of students are recruited athletes. For the bottom 60%, it's one in 10. This is mainly becausechildren of wealthy familiesyesMore likelypractice sports,Especially the more exclusive sportsParticipate in competitions at certain universities, such as rowing and fencing. The study estimates that athletes are admitted at four times the rate of non-athletes with the same qualifications.

Percentage of students admitted to selected elite universities recruited as athletes

Athletes recruited by elite colleges are more likely to come from the highest-income families.

"There's a common misconception that it has to do with basketball and football and kids from low-income families getting into elite colleges," Professor Bastedo said. "But admissions leaders know that athletes tend to be richer, so it's a win-win situation." .”

non-academic assessment

There is a third factor that drives the preferences of the wealthiest applicants. Institutions for studying abroad generally give applicantsnumeric fractionUsed for academic performance and more subjective gradesnon-academic virtues, like itextracurricular activities, volunteering, and personality traits. The top 1% of students with the same test scores did not achieve higher academic performance. But their non-academic ratings were significantly higher.

share high rating

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 receive high non-academic grades than middle-class students. Given the differences in how each school grades non-academic credentials, they found similar patterns at other universities that shared data, the researchers said.

The biggest contributors are admissions committees giving higher marks to students from private secular high schools. They are twice as likely to be admitted to public schools in high-income neighborhoods than their peers (students with the same SAT scores, race, gender, and parental income). is an important factorGuidance Counselor Recommendationsand private high school teachers.

"Parents were upset about a kid coming in because he was the first president of the orchestra, walking on track," saidJohn Morganelli Jr.A former director of admissions at Cornell University and founder of an Ivy League admissions agency, he advises high school students on how to apply to college. "They never said exactly what happened. Did the counselor defend the kid?"

Letters of recommendation from private school counselors are notoriously flamboyant, he said, and counselorsCall admissions officers to inquire about certain students

"That's how feeder schools were born," he said. "No one is calling on behalf of low- and middle-income students. Most public school counselors don't even know these calls exist."

The end of blind demand recording?

Overall, the study showed that if elite colleges removed their preference for heritage, athletes, and private school students, the top 1 percent of kids would make up 10 percent of the class, up from 16 percent during the study period.

The report found that traditional students, athletes and students at private schools do not fare better after college in terms of earnings or access to top schools or companies. In fact, they usually perform worse.

The admissions director, who asked not to be named, said change is easier said than done: “I would say there is a lot more to it than meets the eye. It’s just that the solutions are very complex and if we can Do it, and we'll do it.

For example, selecting athletes from different income brackets is not feasible when many college sports are played almost exclusively by children from high-income families. Legacies can be the most complex, the admissions dean says, because they tend to be highly qualified and their admission is important for maintaining strong ties with alumni.

Ending that preference “is not an easy decision to make in terms of alumni responses, especially if you don’t immediately agree with other Ivy League schools,” the person said. received special attention from admissions offices, but they were not included in the analysis because they were relatively few.)

People involved in admissions say it will be difficult to achieve more economic diversity without doing something else: Ending "need-blind" admissions, a practice that prevents admissions officers from seeing families' financial information so their ability to pay Another factor. Some colleges are already doing what they call "needs-affirming admissions," with the goal of selecting more students from low-income groups, though they typically don't acknowledge this publicly for fear of a backlash.

have a toollandscapeExecutive committeehelp determineIf the applicant grew up in a community of significant privilege or adversity. But if students don't apply for financial aid, those colleges don't know the parents' income.

ivy league university and its peers recently createdconsiderable effortrecruitmore low-income studentsand student finance. Some schools now offer completely free participation for families below a certain income — $100,000 at Stanford and Princeton, $85,000 at Harvard, and $60,000 at Brown.

At Princeton, one in five students now comes from low-income families, and one in four students receives full financial aid. recentlyResume Transfer ProgramEnrolls low-income and community college students. At Harvard, a quarter of this fall's incoming freshman from families earning less than $85,000 will pay nothing. Most freshmen receive a certain amount of financial aid.

Dartmouth just raised$500 millionExpanding Financial Aid: "While we respect the work of Harvard Opportunity Insights, we believe our commitment to these investments since 2015 and our admissions policies tell an important story about the socioeconomic diversity of Dartmouth students," spokeswoman Jana Said Jana Barnello.

Public flagship schools recruit students differently, ultimately favoring less affluent students. UC schools are prohibited from prioritizing bequests or donors, and some schools, such as UCLA, do not consider letters of recommendation. The application asks for family income, and the university obtains details about California high schools. Application readers are trained to consider the student's circumstances, such as whether they worked in high school to support their family, and if "proveMaturity, determination and insight. "

So is the UC systemcooperate with schoolIn the state, from preschool to community college,student supportpeople with obstacles. California has a strong community college transfer program; at UCLA, half the population is from a low-income background.

MIT stands out among elite private schools because it gives little favor to wealthy students,Already have the habit of unscrupulousDean of Admissions Says to Traditional Applicants,Stuart Smit. It does recruit athletes, but they won't be prioritized or go through a separate admissions process (which, he said, can frustrate coaches).

"I think the most important thing here is that talent is shared equally, but opportunity is not, and our admissions process is designed to take into account the different opportunities students have based on income," he said. "Our process does have a responsibility to figure out the difference between talent and privilege."


Does being rich help you get into college? ›

Applicants with financial resources generally have access to experiences and services (i.e. tutoring) that can give them a leg up in the admissions process. In addition, they are sometimes legacies at competitive colleges or have families who have connections at some of these schools, which can help.

Is it easier for rich people to get into college? ›

But many studies have found that those most likely to apply early (when admit rates tend to be higher) are more wealthy than other students. The earlier deadlines favor those who have received good counseling and had time to plan their college search process early.

What do elite colleges look for in applicants? ›

High School GPA and Class Rank

Colleges look not only at your overall GPA but also at how well you did in individual classes. If your school has a class rank, that shows how much competition you faced with grades and performance to reach a particular level.

What are the 3 big factors that will get a college to really look at you during the application process? ›

  • Good Grades. Earning good grades is the most critical factor for college applications. ...
  • Challenging High School Curriculum. ...
  • Strong Standardized Test Scores. ...
  • A Well-Written Essay. ...
  • Extracurricular Participation and Leadership Skills. ...
  • Diversity. ...
  • Enthusiasm for the School. ...
  • Letters of Recommendation.

Do the richest people have college degrees? ›

Four of the 25 richest Americans attended the university, though Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg dropped out before graduating. In fact, one-fifth of billionaires on the list, including Michael Dell and Larry Ellison, dropped out of college before finishing their undergraduate degree.

Can you get into Harvard with money? ›

Because we want to bring the best people to Harvard regardless of their financial circumstances, we follow two important principles: Need-blind admissions. Your financial need and your aid application will never affect your chance of being admitted to Harvard.

How does 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 most millionaires finish college? ›

Eighty-eight percent of millionaires graduated from college, compared to 38% of the general population.

Do most billionaires finish college? ›

This Forbes article recently found that 84% of the top 400 wealthiest individuals in the world have, at a minimum, a bachelor's degree.

Is it worth it to go to an elite college? ›

Parents want their students to attend these lofty colleges for good reason: they want their kids to have the best chance at success after college. “Attending a school with a recognized name provides a measurable boost when searching for jobs, and the networking opportunities at the school are also enhanced,” Cruz said.

What kind of students do Ivy Leagues want? ›

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.

What class do colleges look at the most? ›

High School Classes Colleges Look For
  • English (Language Arts) Take English every year. ...
  • Math. Algebra and geometry help you succeed on admission tests and in college math classes. ...
  • Science. ...
  • Social Studies. ...
  • Foreign Languages. ...
  • The Arts. ...
  • Advanced College Courses.

What matters the 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 grade do colleges look at the most? ›

Your first year and sophomore year affect your cumulative GPA, which is important to most colleges. However, a solid academic record in your junior year is likely to carry more importance with an admissions committee.

Do colleges care about money? ›

The majority of colleges and universities in the US practice need-blind admissions. This means they will not take your financial need into consideration when making an admission decision. They will not look at your ability to pay neither will they consider your potential need for financial aid.

Do colleges look at family income? ›

Student and parent income are big factors when colleges hand out financial aid. But only some income counts. Here's what you need to know about how your and your family's income can affect your financial aid eligibility.

Can you be rich and not go to college? ›

Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg became successful without college degrees. They dropped out of school and started their own companies: Apple, Microsoft and Facebook (Meta). While they are some of the most famous examples of reaching the highest levels of success without a degree, they are far from alone.

Do millionaires usually go to college? ›

Research has found that 88% of millionaires graduated from college, and 52% have a master's or doctoral degree. Education is linked to wealth, but there are also other contributing factors at play that aren't caused by education, such as family background.


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