higher education

Why Elite Colleges Do Affirmative Action For the Rich

Photo: Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images

There are more high-school graduates qualified to attend an elite American college than there are admissions slots at such schools. As a result, our nation’s top universities must perennially find ways of distinguishing meritorious applicants who are worthy of admission from equally meritorious applicants who are not. One way they’ve done this is to take equity into account. Faced with an applicant from a comfortable middle-class background and another equally qualified applicant who grew up in poverty, universities have tended to favor the latter. Similarly, top schools have historically used membership in an underrepresented racial or ethnic group as a tiebreaker. But the Supreme Court recently ruled that those sorts of racial preferences violate the Constitution.

But equity is not the only tiebreaking factor in elite university admissions. It’s just the one that such schools are most interested in talking about. Coming from a humble background can help your application a little. Coming from an exorbitantly wealthy family, however, will help it a lot.

A new study from Opportunity Insights, drawing on internal admissions assessments at elite private colleges, finds that an applicant from a family in the top one percent of America’s income distribution is 34 percent more likely to win admission than a typical applicant with the same SAT or ACT score. Kids from the top 0.1 percent, meanwhile, were more than twice as likely to get in. As the New York Times illustrates:

Photo-Illustration: NYTimes

In effect, elite colleges favor super-wealthy applicants — and, to a lesser extent, working-class ones — while disfavoring those from the upper-middle class. Given that the latter group constitutes the core readership of mainstream news outlets, this finding has garnered a great deal of attention.

Elite colleges’ bias toward wealthy applicants derives from a couple of different sources. One is the class bias of youth sports. Universities give athletes preferential treatment, since fielding competitive sports teams can generate revenue and alumni (i.e., donor) engagement. The pool of kids competing at the highest levels of youth sports is disproportionately wealthy. So a preference for athletes is liable to skew admissions toward the rich (and this is true even if one holds quintessentially posh sports like golf and fencing to the side).

But athletics accounts for only a small fraction of “affirmative action for the rich.” The biggest driver is legacy admissions. Elite colleges have long given special consideration to the children of alumni. And the alumni of elite colleges are disproportionately wealthy.

Elite colleges also show a preference for applicants from (nonreligious) private high schools. Specifically, they tend to give such applicants higher ratings on non-academic criteria.

Photo-Illustration: NYTimes

This is partly a function of the fact that prep schools invest more resources into abetting each of their students’ quests for admission, providing them with flowery recommendations from teachers and guidance counselors. The New York Times’ David Leonhardt suggests that admissions officers get misled by this “polish.”

But I think the primary reason why elite colleges favor both prep-school kids and legacies is that it is in the material interest of the schools to do so.

A 2022 study of 16 years of admissions data from one (anonymous) elite northeastern college illustrates this point. This internal information included the alumni-engagement office’s records on how much each individual graduate contributed to the school upon departing. The average “give score” among legacies was 48 points; among non-legacies, that score was 32 (it is unclear exactly how many dollars in donations each point corresponds to).

Legacies were even more disproportionately likely to be exceptionally large donors, with 42 percent of legacy graduates flagged as potential top givers (a distinction that could reflect their familial wealth), compared to only 6 percent of non-legacy graduates. Notably, this gap does not derive from legacies’ greater career success: Both legacy and non-legacy graduates had roughly equivalent average incomes.

The study does not document similar discrepancies between graduates who came from private high schools and those that did not. But it stands to reason that elite universities are similarly incentivized to take private-school kids, since such applicants disproportionately come from wealthy families and are thus disproportionately likely to bring large future donations to the university.

Less intuitively, the study found that legacies were much more likely to accept an admissions offer than non-legacies were. Among accepted legacy applicants, 74 percent enrolled in the college. Among accepted non-legacies, that figure was 47 percent. This makes admitting legacies appealing to colleges since it enables them to anticipate the size of an incoming class with greater certainty.

So what are we to do with all this information? Personally, I have three takeaways:

1. Elite universities are not ideal vehicles for advancing social equality. A vanishingly small fraction of American college students will attend an elite university. So from one angle, the stakes of such schools’ admissions policies for social justice may seem low. Whatever criteria they use, the absolute number of children from marginalized backgrounds who will receive an education at an Ivy League school is going to be tiny. You aren’t going to substantially reduce race or class inequality by altering Harvard’s admissions policy.

The argument for why top universities nevertheless have a key role to play in advancing social equity is that they mint our nation’s elite. Although alumni from the 12 colleges in the Opportunity Insights study constitute less than one percent of U.S. college graduates, they comprise 12 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, 13 percent of the top 0.1 percent of income earners, and a quarter of U.S. senators.

The Opportunity Insights study also looked at students who were wait-listed at an Ivy and got in and compared their life outcomes to those who were wait-listed and then went to a flagship public university. It found that both groups of students had roughly the same incomes on average. But going to an elite college increased a student’s chance of ending up in the top 1 percent of income earners by 60 percent, while also doubling their odds of attending a top graduate school, and tripling their odds of working at a prestigious firm, such as a national newspaper or research hospital. Thus the researchers behind the study told the Times that focusing on elite schools’ admissions policies is warranted since “they provide paths to power and influence — and diversifying who attends has the potential to change who makes decisions in America.”

Ironically, this means that, in order for Ivy League schools to advance social equity through their admissions policies, they need to perpetuate the inequitable treatment of Ivy League grads relative to other people: If America’s top firms, hospitals, and political parties stopped favoring Ivy grads over similarly qualified individuals, then Harvard’s admissions policies would not matter as much. Given that many of the students who don’t get in to a top-tier college are academically indistinguishable from those who do, it is not clear that this bias in favor of Ivy grads can be justified even on meritocratic terms.

In any case, if we accept that this bias cannot be changed and that the mission of Ivy League schools should be to diversify the elite, then the question of what their admission policies should look like gets a bit thorny.

Let’s stipulate that the goal of a top private college should be to give kids from marginalized backgrounds the best possible chance of ascending into America’s social elite. It seems possible that giving preferential treatment to both low-income students and super rich ones (at the upper middle class’s expense) would actually be consistent with that mission. After all, surely one small part of the reason why Ivy grads are more likely to become power elites than those who attend other schools is that they are more plugged into aristocratic social networks . Precisely because Harvard admits a lot of children of the super-rich, a non-rich kid who goes there is more likely to accrue elite connections than one who does not.

Giving preferential treatment to both non-affluent kids and superrich ones does mean that you need to disfavor upper-middle-class applicants. But from an elite-diversification standpoint, this seems fine: Does anyone believe that there aren’t enough people from upper-middle-class backgrounds in America’s most powerful media, business, governmental, and medical organizations?

Further, to the extent that admitting legacies generates donations – which can then be used to subsidize lower-income students’ tuitions – giving preferential treatment to rich applicants would be all the more compatible with pursuing elite diversification.

None of this is to say that the Ivy League’s current admissions policies are actually optimized for elite diversification. They aren’t. Under an optimal system, the admissions preference for working-class kids would be drastically higher. Giving students from the top one percent a bigger leg up than those in the bottom 10 percent cannot possibly advance equity. But it isn’t obvious that optimizing for elite diversification would involve eliminating preferences for superrich kids entirely, since such kids theoretically play a role in facilitating their classmates’ entrance into the elite.

To be clear, I don’t think schools should provide affirmative action to the rich, even if doing so might theoretically, marginally advance elite diversification. There will still be plenty of well-connected kids at Ivy League schools without legacy admissions, since children of the upper class are disproportionately likely to be high academic performers. Meanwhile, Ivy League schools aren’t hurting for cash and have plenty of ways to finance tuition aid without bribing donors through their admissions policies.

Still, the fact that there is some theoretical compatibility between using Ivy League admissions to diversify America’s elite, and giving rich kids preferential treatment in admissions, illustrates the limitations of the former as a mechanism for increasing social equity. Which is to say, it highlights the reality that having Ivy League schools catapult a few hundred (or even thousand) working-class kids into the one percent, and perpetuating the super wealthy’s social dominance, are not mutually exclusively endeavors.

All else equal, it would be good for more individuals who experienced childhood poverty or racial prejudice to find their way onto Ivy League campuses, and then into elite fields, where their perspectives may inform consequential decisions. But it would be better if a small number of schools did not have the power to anoint social elites. And it would be better still if political and economic authority were less concentrated in the hands of a narrow elect, no matter its composition.

2. The case for eliminating standardized testing on equity grounds is weak. In recent years, many have called for colleges to stop considering SAT scores when making admissions decisions on the grounds that the test is biased in favor of privileged students, who can afford to pay for tutoring. The Opportunity Insights data suggests that this is misguided, since less-transparent admissions criteria — such as the interviews, recommendations letters, personal essays, and extracurriculars that inform “nonacademic ratings” — appear to benefit the privileged even more. It is easier for a working-class kid to pick up an SAT prep book and study it intensively than it is for them to go on a community-service trip to South America, play travel lacrosse, or flatter the sensibilities of an upper-middle-class admissions official. More critically, it is easier for schools to game intangible criteria in the wealthy’s favor.

This doesn’t mean that it would be good to base admissions on the SAT alone. The test’s biggest problem is that it doesn’t predict success in college very well. But as an equity matter, the SAT is one of the least-bad metrics we’ve got.

3. We should increase funding to public colleges and universities.
Unlike the elite schools that the Opportunity Insights study examined, flagship public universities like the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Virginia were no more likely to admit rich kids than poor ones with comparable test scores. Such public institutions are not as concerned with helping their rich patrons transmit elite status to their children. And they also serve orders of magnitude more students from working-class and nonwhite backgrounds than America’s elite private colleges do.

At present, America’s higher-education system invests the most per-student resources into kids at the most selective private colleges. And yet the students who attend those schools almost certainly don’t need such intensive investment in order to succeed. Those who are on the bubble of getting into an Ivy but end up being forced to go to a slightly less prestigious school go on to earn about as much on average as those who attend Ivies. America’s most academically competitive high-school graduates are liable to thrive wherever they go to school.

But this is less true of high-school graduates who are on the bubble of securing admission to a public university. For them, the stakes of accessing the resources of a great college are quite high. In 1997, Texas established a policy by which those who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high-school class are automatically admitted to the state’s selective public universities. The effect of this policy was to help disadvantaged students gain access to the university system, since many of the state’s high schools serve overwhelmingly low-income and/or nonwhite populations. A 2020 study found that the highest-ranking students at disadvantaged schools — who had been unlikely to enter the University of Texas system before the top 10 policy — saw increases in both college-graduation rates and adult earnings as a result of the measure. Which is to say: By providing these kids with a selective university’s resources, Texas dramatically improved their economic outcomes.

Diversifying elite private colleges is a fine goal. But if we want to use higher education to foster upward mobility at scale, we need to make increasing the resources available to high-quality public universities — and thus the number of students who can attend them — a priority.

Why Elite Colleges Do Affirmative Action For the Rich