New Report Shows Just How Unequal the College Admissions Process Actually Is


Colleges across the country are deeply embroiled in impassioned debates about how to make higher education institutions, especially elite schools, more inclusive for students of color. But there is relatively little talk about how such concerns might be extended to students whose main obstacle to participation in college life is poverty. 

A new report by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation provides some much-needed balance on that front. The report, entitled "True Merit," reveals some remarkable statistics on how socioeconomic class plays a crucial role in shaping the composition of student bodies at the nation's most competitive colleges. High sticker prices for cost of attendance, the importance of lofty extracurriculars in admissions decisions, confusing financial aid processes and other systemic factors stack the deck in favor of the wealthy in admissions systems at elite colleges, so much so that low-income students are all but nonexistent.

The report finds that nearly three-quarters of the students in America's most competitive higher education institutions are from the top socioeconomic quartile in the United States. But a mere 3% of students in these colleges come from the bottom 25%. This chart from the report shows how the little sliver of yellow representing the bottom socioeconomic quartile of students slowly grows as the colleges become less competitive:

Jack Kent Cooke Foundation

The report notes that the distribution of Pell Grants — federal financial aid packages for low-income students that don't have to be paid back — has been on the rise since the turn of the millennium. But the only colleges where there has been virtually no growth in the number of recipients of such grants have been the most elite ones. While noncompetitive colleges experienced close to a 10% rise in the proportion of Pell Grant recipients among their incoming students between 2000 and 2013, the most selective colleges' share rose only 1%:

Jack Kent Cooke Foundation

The report finds that high-achieving students from the top socioeconomic quartile are three times more likely to apply to selective colleges than those in the bottom quartile.

Why is this happening? There's a vast array of reasons for the disparity between poorer and richer students at selective colleges, but one major factor at play is that low-income students simply apply to selective colleges in far smaller numbers than those from wealthier backgrounds. And among the relatively small number of low-income applicants, there are numerous ways in which the admissions process and the distribution of financial aid subject them to standards that are all but impossible to meet compared to their well-heeled peers.

The application disparity is important. According to the report, only 23% of low-income students who are high-achieving apply to a selective school, while just about half of their wealthier counterparts do. There are many reasons for that difference, but the report finds that a great deal of that has to do with information. Without the college guidance resources that students in affluent high schools have, many low-income students are discouraged from applying for schools with extremely high tuition costs, unaware that they're eligible for federal aid and scholarships that can seriously cut down on the price of a degree. Navigating the college admissions process at top schools as a low-income student is a relatively lonely process — there isn't as much local know-how to draw from if your community is has less firsthand knowledge of how the process works.

But even if armed with knowledge of how to finance a degree at a competitive college, low-income students students are hobbled still by all kinds of disadvantages that accompany material insecurity. They can't afford expensive test prep courses that boost scores. They can't afford to visit college campuses. They have a much more limited ability to stack their resume with impressive extracurriculars: Outstanding pianists need to be able to afford piano lessons, star lacrosse players need expensive equipment, community service heroes need the kind of spare time that's less available to those who rush home after school to take care of a sibling or work a job to help make ends meet.

The report recommends that selective colleges institute a "poverty preference," a systematized boost for low-income students akin to the way affirmative action measures seek to correct historical discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities in the admissions process. Considering that the Supreme Court is debating the merits of racially based affirmative action at the moment, discussion of how socioeconomic disadvantage should be accounted for in the admissions process is certainly timely.