How do wealthy kids get into elite colleges?

Earlier this week I wrote down my thoughts about the admissions scandal as we know it right now. In that post I argue, among other things, that massive cheating and bribery are not normal. I also argue that major donations to colleges are not actually legal bribes to get sub-par kids into elite schools, despite popular perception. However, popular perception is absolutely correct that elite universities are largely populated by wealthy students. So how do wealthy kids get into elite colleges? Are they, as many people have written in the past two weeks, gaming the system and destroying meritocracy? They are…kind of. Let’s look at some of the ways that wealth plays into college admissions.

First, let’s start with the obvious. Wealthy families can send their kids to elite colleges because they, unlike most people, can afford to. Elite schools are very expensive. The median price of tuition and fees at US News’s top 10 national universities is $54,240 per year. Just under $217,000 for four years. And that’s only tuition and fees, without including housing and living expenses. For comparison, the median US household income is $61,372. The median price of a home in the US is around $226,000.

So less wealthy students can go to an elite college if: they get accepted, they get a financial aid package that they can work with, their family is able and willing to make sacrifices to help pay for it, and (usually) they’re willing to take on student debt.

And wealthy students can go to an elite college if: they get accepted. What’s more, wealthy families are much more likely to have money saved for college, so the $217K might not even affect their day-to-day budget at all.

It should not be surprising that people with a lot of money have better access to something that’s extremely expensive.

What’s worse, most universities can’t, even if they want to, start accepting a lot more students who can’t pay the full price. For a lot of schools, the money for financial aid budgets depends on…wealthy students and donors. The published price for universities is rising more quickly than the actual net price after financial aid. Put another way: the price of college for wealthy students is going up more quickly than the price for less-wealthy students, and wealthy, paying-full-price students are helping to keep costs lower for students on financial aid. Personally, I’m fine with that. I want the rich families to chip in more. However, it means that universities literally cannot afford to ignore the wealthy applicants, because that money is needed to help out everyone else. So if we’re going to push for more underprivileged students at expensive elite schools (which we should), then we’ll also have to find other ways to get funding.

But there’s more to it than that. There are a few dozen schools (depending on how you count) that are both need blind and meet full demonstrated need. They don’t take your ability to pay into account when deciding to accept you, and they will make sure that you get all the financial aid that you need based on FAFSA. There’s a reasonable expectation that many of their graduates will have high earnings after graduating, so there’s no need to prefer one person over another based on the assumption that they might be donors. These schools ought to be the very definition of meritocracy, since almost nobody needs to worry about the cost when they apply, and the schools only look at your academic records, not your financial records, to make their decisions. And yet, those schools are all elite colleges dominated by wealthier students. Is this the proof that wealthy families game the system? Sort of. Now let’s think about the advantages that wealthy families have beyond being able to afford to pay cash for college.

Wealthier families can afford early childhood education choices. Only four states offer universal Pre-K education for four-year olds. In most places, early childhood education is available only to families who can afford it. Even for students who don’t begin formal education until Kindergarten, families with more money have more choices available. Head Start attempts to bridge the divide, but it’s not universal. Wealthier families are more likely to have someone whose full-time job—whether a stay-at-home parent, a nanny, a pre-K program, or some combination—is to take care of children.

Wealthier families have more school choices, especially in cities and suburbs. More money means more opportunities to choose a private school over the neighborhood public school. It also means more opportunities to move to a neighborhood where the neighborhood school has what you’re looking for. Urban and suburban school districts are more likely to have magnet programs that tailor to a student’s needs or talents. So while less affluent families, especially in rural areas, deal with whatever frustrations come from their school, more affluent families deal with the time-consuming frustration of figuring out which school they want to go to and how to make that happen. Those can be very different things.

Wealthier families often have the ability to recognize and address learning differences earlier. While all public schools are required by law to identify students with special needs and accommodate their differences, many Special Education and Gifted & Talented programs are overstretched and underfunded. Families with more resources—including someone whose full-time job is to care for the children—can often find and begin to address differences like dyslexia and dysgraphia sooner and more consistently.

Wealthier students are less likely to work jobs outside of school or be responsible for taking care of children. That leaves a lot more time for schoolwork, extra-curricular activities, and sleep.

Wealthier families are more likely to hire extra academic help. Tutors, SAT/ACT prep classes, enrichment activities, college consultants, travel opportunities—none of these are cheap, and almost nobody gets them except for people who can pay for them out of pocket. Many schools will offer at least some of these to lower-income students. But, just as with early childhood education, wealthier families have more choices.

There may also be extra help baked into the system: grade inflation tends to be higher at more affluent schools.

So by college application time in the 12th grade, wealth and meritocracy are often difficult to separate. The students at the elite universities show the evidence for meritocracy: they have outstanding high school GPAs, great standardized test scores, and impressive resumes. The graduation rates are very high at these colleges, which don’t offer remedial courses. It’s hard to say the students—of any social or economic background—don’t deserve to be there. And yet…the students skew very wealthy.

So how do we fix the problem? Some parts may not be fixable. People with more money will always, by definition, be able to afford more. But a lot of the differences between more-affluent and less-affluent families can be made up for.

First, foremost, and most importantly, public education must be improved. In many states primary education spending is still way down from where it was 12 years ago, and in most states spending for public college is also down. If we want better outcomes for everyone, not just the wealthy, then we have to support the education systems that are available to everyone. Better public education can get more lower-income students into elite colleges, and better public universities can increase the number of affordable elite colleges.

Universities can increase their recruiting in rural areas.

More universities can commit to not giving merit aid. Merit aid is used to lure top students to colleges by making it more affordable and by appealing to pride. Often, for the reasons listed above, the students who end up getting merit aid are students who can afford to go to the school without the scholarship. Schools that don’t yet meet 100% of need-based aid can take a stand to drop most or all of their merit scholarships until they’re able to attract lower-income students through need-based aid.

Use Legacy status to boost diversity. To be a Legacy means that someone in your immediate family is a graduate of the college. Schools see this as a bonus, because students who apply to a college a parent went to are more likely to enroll and more likely to fit into the school’s culture. However, Legacy can also pass privilege onto another generation. Legacy admission is often referred to as “affirmative action for the wealthy.” A lot of people want to get rid of Legacy advantages, and I suspect more universities will succumb to the pressure and drop legacy boosts.

I’m not convinced every university should drop Legacy advantages, though. I worry about the long-term perception if Harvard and Yale, who have made progress in diversifying their student bodies, drop Legacy. In twenty years, will people be saying “they used to offer Legacy bonuses to kids of graduates, but then they stopped offering that when they started letting in more non-white students.” I think some schools, though not all or even most, could find ways to use Legacy as a enticement to recruit low-income and first-generation students.

Early Decision is another admissions program that’s currently seen as a bonus for wealthy students. Students who can’t afford to pay full price often feel discouraged from applying ED because they need to be able to shop around for the best financial aid packages. But if colleges identify low-income and first-generation students that are likely to get full financial aid and encourage them to apply ED, then that can be a win-win. Lower-income students feel more comfortable applying ED because the schools have reached out to them and given them some assurances, and the universities get to “lock in” the great talent who might otherwise be applying to more schools. If they can scout and recruit athletes in the lower high school grades, surely they can find a way to do the same for academic talent.

One more thing we can do is decide to change the way we think of “elite colleges.” Right now, schools we think of as “elite” share at least two of the following three characteristics: they’re old, they’re high up in the US News rankings, and they have a big endowment. But “elite” isn’t a legal, official term. We can decide to start celebrating schools with high social mobility rankings, for example, recognizing that “good schools” are the ones that move people from lower to higher socio-economic opportunity. A step in the right direction: US News has begun using social mobility as one of its factors. America has a rich history of cheering for the underdog and enjoying seeing “Davids” defeating “Goliaths.” Maybe now is the time we apply that attitude to colleges as well.

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Photo by  Zoe Herring

Photo by Zoe Herring