Nothing’s Fair in College Admissions and Culture Wars
A new study confirms what many in the middle class already know—it’s tough out there.
1. College Admissions for the Middle
There’s a new study out looking at income and elite college admissions that has everyone talking about how
awesome unfair things are for the ultra-wealthy. I want to focus not on the super-rich, but on the middle. Because that’s the group who gets really screwed.
The first important graph looks at Ivy Plus attendance rates for kids with 1510 on their SATs:
It’s important to note that the x-axis here isn’t scaled—the red circle I dropped in it only takes up a third of the graphic, but it accounts for about 50 percent of the students—the kids with family income spanning from roughly the 45th percentile to the 95th percentile.
Kids with high SAT scores in that income band are much less likely to attend an Ivy Plus school than either kids from very poor or very rich families.
This makes a sense when you think about it, because we’re talking about attendance, not admittance. Kids at the lower end of the economic scale should be getting the most financial aid, so attending an Ivy Plus school should cost them less than it costs a family in the 90th income percentile. And for the money-is-no-object super rich at that 99th-plus percentile, you’d expect them to have much higher attendance rates since they are completely price insensitive.
But still, this graph shows that cost is a factor. Our system makes it easier for poor folks and easier for rich folks—and tells the people in the middle, “Eh, you’ll figure it out.”
Maybe that’s the right thing to do! Maybe being born into the middle class is such a big life-win that those kids should be left to figure stuff out, because most of the time they will.
But that’s a hard pill to swallow if you’ve got a kid who’s really smart, but because you make $120k a year, she goes to Big State and not Yale, because you can’t afford it.
Also: The attendance numbers aren’t entirely a function of price. There’s an admissions component, too:
This x-axis is proportionately scaled, so the drop off in the admissions rate doesn’t come until about the 65th percentile of family income. But what it shows is still real: It’s much harder to get into an elite college if you’re in the top 30th percentile of income—unless you’re at the very top of the income scale. At which point you’re basically golden.
Here’s the New York Times:
Children from middle- and upper-middle-class families — including those at public high schools in high-income neighborhoods — applied in large numbers. But they were, on an individual basis, less likely to be admitted than the richest or, to a lesser extent, poorest students with the same test scores. In that sense, the data confirms the feeling among many merely affluent parents that getting their children into elite colleges is increasingly difficult.
“We had these very skewed distributions of a whole lot of Pell kids and a whole lot of no-need kids, and the middle went missing,” said an Ivy League dean of admissions, who has seen the new data and spoke anonymously in order to talk openly about the process. “You’re not going to win a P.R. battle by saying you have X number of families making over $200,000 that qualify for financial aid.”
Is this fair?