Unequal Opportunity – Top Schools Only for the Rich

74% of students as top 146 universities come from wealthy families. Only 3% from poorest families.

The underrepresentation of low-income students in higher education is particularly
pronounced at the nation’s most selective colleges. As Figure 8 shows, 74 percent
of students at the nation’s top 146
colleges come from the richest
socioeconomic quartile and just 3 percent
come from the poorest quartile. Put
differently, one is twenty-five times as
likely to run into a rich student as a poor
student at the nation’s top 146 colleges.
Many colleges say they already provide
admissions preferences to low-income
students, but the evidence suggests
otherwise. Racial preferences boost
enrollment from 4 percent African
American and Latino under a system of
admissions based strictly on grades and
test scores to 12 percent currently,
tripling their representation at elite
colleges. If economic preferences were
comparable to those provided for race,
they should boost the bottom economic half from a 12 percent representation (using grades and test scores) to something
like 36 percent. In fact, the bottom half currently does marginally worse than it
would under admissions based on grades and test scores, accounting for just 10
percent of students, as Figure 9 demonstrates.
Some universities say they would like to admit more low-income and working-class
students but do not because such students would not be academically prepared to
succeed in a competitive environment.
In fact, research shows, if students were
admitted based on grades and test
scores, with a preference for
economically disadvantaged students,
graduation rates at the top 146 colleges
would be slightly higher than they are
among the current student body.
Students currently admitted based on
academic standing and a variety of
preferences (athletic, legacy, geographic,
race, and so on) graduate at an 86 percent rate. Using a preference for lowincome
students instead would yield a
graduation rate of 90 percent, as Figure 10

Low-income students are ill served in
America’s higher education system in
almost every respect: general enrollment
rates, general graduation rates, and
enrollment and graduation from elite
colleges. As presidential candidates
debate how to improve equity in higher
education and Congress and the
administration work to reauthorize the
federal Higher Education Act, attention
should be focused on America’s untapped
resource—the low-income students Lyndon
Johnson said should have an equal
opportunity to attend any college in the
land—for their sake and for ours.