How College Admissions Policies Favor the Rich

on August 1, 2017

Which of the following groups enjoys the greatest college admission advantage?

  1. Minority students
  2. Middle-income students
  3. Upper-middle class and wealth students

If you picked choice No. 3, you’re correct. The admission process heavily favors affluent students.


Not convinced? Keep reading to learn 10 reasons that back up this claim:


1. Demonstrated Interest


New research has concluded that demonstrated interest has become a way for high-income students to gain an admission edge.


Many colleges want applicants to demonstrate that they are genuinely interested in their institutions. A survey from the National Association for College Admission Counseling indicates that 50 percent of colleges consider demonstrated interest as having considerable or moderate importance in the admission process.


A variety of ways exists to show colleges that you care including:

Here’s why demonstrated interest provides affluent students with an edge in college admissions: While some methods of expressing interest in a college cost nothing, the researchers concluded that highly selective colleges are more likely to put the most stock in campus visits, which can be pricey.


According to the researchers, teenagers who apply to highly selective colleges and visit the campuses are up to 40 percent more likely to be admitted than comparable students who can’t afford to visit the college.


Some of the most selective colleges offer college fly-in programs to help low-income visit their campuses, but most do not.


2. High School Grades


Colleges heavily depend on grades when deciding who gets in and who gets rejected. A study released in July suggests that grade point average has gone up significantly during the past two decades from 3.27 GPA to 3.38 GPA.


The good news for wealthier students is that their GPAs have increased the most. The average GPA at the schools with the highest grade inflation was 3.56. In contrast, minority students primarily attended schools with the lowest average GPA (3.14 GPA).


3. Legacies


Elite colleges and universities began giving preferential treatment to children of alumni in the early 20th century when these institutions raised their admission standards, which included the launch of the SAT. Children of immigrants, among them Jews and the Irish, began outperforming some rich Protestants, who had previously been shoe-ins for admission. In reaction, the institutions began reserving a large number of spots to the children of these wealthy families.


Legacy practices remain at the majority of institutions and almost every private liberal arts college, according to a new book entitled, Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class is Leaving Everyone in the Dust, Why That is a Problem and What To Do About It.


“Legacy admissions are an embarrassment for a nation that prides itself on being a meritocracy,” wrote Richard V. Reeves, the book’s author and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.


4. Need-Aware Admissions Policies


The vast majority of private colleges in this country are need aware. Like colleges with need-blind admissions policies, they start off accepting students without regard to their financial ability to pay. But, after accepting a certain number of applicants, the admissions process becomes need sensitive. High-income students are then more likely to be admitted, even if they aren’t as qualified as applicants who need financial help.


A dramatic example of this common practice landed on the front page of The New York Times back in 2009 when the country was still grappling with the recession. Faced with much more financial need than usual from their current students, the financial aid office at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, took a look at the list of accepted students (they had not been notified yet) and told the admission office to take more than 100 students off the acceptance list and replace them wealthy, full-pay students.


The article prompted an outcry from readers, but what they didn’t realize is that need-aware practices are commonplace.


5. Test-Optional Policies Help Affluent Students


Colleges that announce with great fanfare that they are making ACT/SAT test scores optional inevitably offer a noble reason for the policy change. These test scores are highly correlated with income, which puts low and middle-income teenagers at a disadvantage. High-income students can afford test prep courses, which can improve their test scores. Without the test score requirement, low-income students have a greater chance at admission.


A 2014 study, however, suggested that minority and low-income students did not see any more admission gains at test- optional colleges compared to those that still require tests.


More cynical explanations exist for ditching the testing requirement. For instance, a test-optional policy now allows colleges to accept high-income students who have done poorly on the standardized tests without hurting the institutions’ U.S. News & World Report college rankings. Only students with very good test scores report them to test-optional colleges, increasing the average test score reported to college ranking organizations.


6. Merit Scholarship War


Both private and public universities are aggressively pursuing affluent students with merit scholarships. The overall pool of high school students has been shrinking for several years. With the traditionally favored candidates (affluent teens with impressive academic profiles) dwindling, colleges are competing against each other for these students by offering merit awards.


A New America study entitled, The Out-of-State Student Arms Race, documents the competition for these students among public universities. Universities are recruiting these students for three major reasons:

  1. Students with higher test scores and grade point averages can help boost an institution’s U.S. News & World Report’s ranking.
  2. Even after receiving merit scholarships these students still bring in more net revenue than state residents.
  3. With so many universities recruiting these students, institutions have to sweeten the pot to lock in these sought-after applicants.

The study showed that when universities devote more money for merit scholarships the amount of aid for low-income students declines. The most selective colleges and universities enroll a smaller percentage of Federal Pell Grant recipients than other colleges.


The use of institutional merit grants has grown and now exceeds institutional need-based grant funding at many colleges.


7. Race-Based Affirmative Action


At many highly selective private colleges, minority students can enjoy an admission advantage. But the students who do win the education lottery and gain admission are usually not low-income students. Eighty-six percent of black students at selective colleges are middle or upper class, according to a Jack Kent Cooke Foundation report.  


8. Early Decision Admissions


It’s easier to get into many elite colleges and universities if you apply early decision. Students who apply early decision promise that they will attend if admitted, regardless of any financial aid. This isn’t a promise that low-income students can typically make. Low-income students need to be able to shop around for the college with the lowest net price.


According to an analysis by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, high-achieving, low-income students are half as likely to apply early than wealthy applicants.


9. Private College Consultants


The college process can be intimating and byzantine, especially for low-income students who are first in their families to go to college. Unlike affluent families, low-income parents can’t hire consultants to help.


10. Tax Breaks


Investing in a 529 college savings plan is a great way to save for college. It’s also expensive for the federal government and most states because these plans provide generous tax perks that are particularly beneficial to affluent parents. According to federal statistics, 70 percent of individuals capturing 529 tax benefits had household incomes more than $200,000.


Back in 2015, President Barack Obama proposed eliminating the 529 tax break but he withdrew the proposal just days after being surprised by the strong opposition.


Lynn O’Shaughnessy is a best-selling author, speaker and journalist. Her book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, is available on

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