New Research Lays Bare Just How Inequitable Elite Colleges Are
Though the nation’s most selective private colleges have long been criticized for perpetuating inequality, a sweeping new study reached a stark conclusion: They “amplify the persistence of privilege across generations.”
Research released Monday from three education scholars at Harvard and Brown universities pulls from a trove of data, including federal tax returns, standardized test scores, and applications and admissions records, some of which were anonymously provided to the researchers by selective colleges.
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Though the nation’s most-selective private colleges have long been criticized for perpetuating inequality, a sweeping new study has reached a stark conclusion: They “amplify the persistence of privilege across generations.”
Research released Monday from three education scholars at Harvard and Brown Universities pulls from a trove of data, including federal tax returns, standardized-test scores, and application and admissions records, some of which were anonymously provided to the researchers by selective colleges.
The study looked at “Ivy-Plus” colleges, defined as the eight Ivy League colleges plus Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Duke University, and the University of Chicago.
Their conclusion is decisive: getting into one of those colleges “dramatically changes children’s life trajectories.” Then, after those students graduate, they’re more likely to make more money than their peers who were educated elsewhere.
The findings are already renewing calls for a handful of rich universities with outsize influence on American society to rethink how they admit and enroll students, particularly on the heels of the Supreme Court’s rebuke of race-conscious admissions earlier this summer.
While not surprising to many higher-ed experts, the study runs counter to some prior research that has questioned whether students’ future earnings improve if they attend an elite private college instead of a public university. But a new “big data” approach allowed the researchers to make a broader, more systemic assessment.
“Some of the older studies in this literature, they didn’t quite have the data in order to really nail the effect,” John N. Friedman, an economics professor at Brown and one of the authors of the study, told The Chronicle.
Friedman and his co-authors found that students have a 60-percent better chance at reaching the top 1 percent of the income bracket if they go to these dozen colleges as opposed to the most-selective public flagships.
The new research “kind of put the pieces together from other studies,” said W. Carson Byrd, an associate research scientist with the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
One finding from the study drew the most attention on Monday: These 12 highly selective colleges are more than twice as likely to admit students from the nation’s wealthiest families than students from middle- and low-income backgrounds — even if those students have similar scores on the SAT or ACT.
The researchers traced those higher admission rates back to a few factors, including priority treatment given to students who attend their parents’ alma mater, known as legacy preferences, and to athletes. But the largest advantage went to the legacy students: According to the study, they’re five times more likely to be admitted to an Ivy-Plus college than non-legacies with similar résumés.
Since the Supreme Court’s admissions ruling, many colleges have emphasized their use of “holistic” admissions practices that aim to account for students’ life experiences, not just their grades. But certain aspects of holistic reviews, the “nonacademic ratings” like extracurricular activities and leadership traits, may just give more of an advantage to students from high-income families, the researchers found.
While the share of students who receive the highest academic scores are roughly the same across the socioeconomic distribution, the study said, the nonacademic ratings of students from families in the top 1 percent are 1.5 times higher than their peers in the bottom 99 percent.
As colleges rethink admissions practices in the coming months, some of the preferences benefiting wealthy students will be harder to justify, said Rick Clark, the assistant vice provost and executive director of undergraduate admissions at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
“If schools are really serious about expanding access and enhancing it, there needs to be an abandonment of the traditional recruitment strategy,” Clark said.
In theory, preferences for the children of alumni help colleges build stronger fundraising networks. But they’re vastly unpopular: A 2022 Pew Research poll showed three-fourths of Americans oppose them. They’ve long been in the cross hairs of equity advocates, who have ramped up calls for colleges to nix the practice in the weeks since the Supreme Court ruled that race-conscious admissions was unconstitutional.
One of the small number of colleges that has now stopped considering legacy status is Wesleyan University, a private selective institution in Connecticut. In a recent interview with The Chronicle, its president, Michael S. Roth, said the decision came in part due to mounting public pressure.
“Should we have done it sooner? Yeah,” he said.