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Research from Harvard economists confirms elite colleges favor wealthy students

People walked up the steps to the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library on Harvard’s campus.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Research from Ivy League economists released Monday confirms what many have long believed to be true: The nation’s most prestigious private colleges tend to favor applicants from high-income families over less affluent ones, even when they have comparable academic qualifications.

The analysis, which used anonymized admissions data, family income tax records, and standardized test scores, found that middle-class students with comparable exam scores are the least likely to be admitted while students from the nation’s wealthiest families are the most likely to gain admission.

“Say you and I both got a 1,500 on the SAT, if I’m from a low-income family, the chances that I attend an Ivy-plus college are 10 percent,” said Raj Chetty, a Harvard economist who co-wrote the report. “The chances that you attend if you’re from a top 1 percent family are more like 30 percent, or even 40 percent. It’s a big gap.”

The results provide more data and evidence of the unfair advantages baked into elite colleges’ admissions processes, including preferences for children of alumni and athletic recruits, and non-academic scores from extracurriculars and letters of recommendation.

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Such practices need to be reevaluated, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s striking down affirmative action last month, to increase opportunity for students of middle-to-low income backgrounds, said Angel Pérez, chief executive of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

“This reminds us that the institutions with the most resources in this country still have a long way to go, around putting more investment into admitting low socio-economic students in the country,” Pérez said in an interview. “This is an opportunity for us to rethink the admissions process.”

The economists said that although the Ivy League and peer institutions (defined in this report as Duke University, Stanford University, MIT, and the University of Chicago) educate fewer than 1 percent of Americans, the schools disproportionately graduate students who become the nation’s highest earners and most influential leaders, which makes them worth studying, Chetty said.

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He and his co-authors, John Friedman of Brown University and David Deming of Harvard, wondered whether these top schools could improve the socioeconomic diversity of America’s future leaders by changing admissions policies.

The disparities are not reflected in the nation’s public flagship colleges, like UC Berkeley and UCLA, and the researchers suggest elite private colleges could follow their lead.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s approach is also worth studying, Chetty said, because it does not consider legacy status as a factor in admissions like its peers.

“We just don’t find it relevant to assessing the talent and the potential of the individual,” said Stuart Schmill, MIT’s dean of admissions and student financial services, in an interview Monday.

In addition, Schmill said, student athletes “go through the same admission process at the same time as every other applicant.”

One of the best ways for MIT to predict student success is relying on SAT scores, he said, which prompted a decision last year to reinstate the SAT or ACT requirement after pausing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There are talented students from high-income families, low-income families [and] middle-income families, and we want to give them all the same review in our process,” Schmill said.

The report, likewise, said that despite some potential biases, “SAT/ACT scores remain one of the best predictors of students’ post-college outcomes among available indicators.”

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A Harvard spokesperson, Jonathan Swain, said that the university is in “the process of reviewing aspects of our admissions policies” following the recent Supreme Court decision. About a quarter of Harvard’s incoming freshman class come from families whose annual incomes are $85,000 or less, he said, which means they will not be expected to contribute anything to the cost of the education.

“Our review includes examination of a range of data and information, along with learnings from Harvard’s efforts over the past decade to strengthen our ability to attract and support a diverse intellectual community,” Swain said. “The research released by professors Chetty, Deming, and Friedman will add insights to our considerations and our continuing efforts to attract and support a community of outstanding students whose educational opportunities are not constrained by financial circumstances.”

Legacy admission policies “are the largest factor contributing to the over-representation of children from high-income families” at top colleges, the report said. The biggest boost goes to high-income legacy applicants, “who are five times more likely to be admitted to an Ivy-plus college than peers with comparable credentials whose parents did not attend the college.”

Recruited student athletes also disproportionately come from wealthy backgrounds and receive a big advantage in admissions. Also, wealthy students who apply to college from wealthy private high schools also gain a boost in the admissions process because of resources available at those schools, including guidance counselors with smaller caseloads and more time to write informed letters of recommendation, the report said.

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The research, which mostly focuses on the entering classes of 2010-15, found that top schools would not need to compromise academic standards to increase socio-economic diversity because there are so many low-and-middle income students with high SAT scores and “strong chances of success” who are not currently admitted.

“These kids with a strong non-academic rating, legacy kids, the athletes — is it justified that they get in [to top schools] at higher rates?” Chetty said. “Do we see them having better outcomes? The answer to that is no. As we’re thinking about diversity in a post-affirmative-action world, can we make progress by not implicitly or unintentionally having affirmative action for the rich?”

The admissions advantages kick in for families who earn more than $600,000 or $700,000 a year, Chetty added. Families who earn more than $250,000 per year are typically ineligible for financial aid. The report does not research children of donors, but Chetty said there are a “very small fraction of people with the resources to make donations that are really transformative to these colleges given the size of their endowments.”

The report’s findings suggest that top employers should expand recruitment strategies beyond the wealthiest colleges and universities to diversify the nation’s top earners and leaders, said Deming, a Harvard economist and co-author of the report.

While graduates from flagship public universities and other private universities “do just fine” financially, they are less likely to climb to the top 1 percent of the nation’s earners, he said, in part because firms that pay the highest wages often focus recruitment efforts on the Ivy League and similar schools.

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“Winning a lottery ticket to be admitted to an Ivy-plus college also gives you a lottery ticket to work at a very high-paying firm,” Deming said. “The overall picture is that these very high-paying companies in finance, consulting, and so on focus disproportionately on a few schools. ... That’s something that could change.”


Hilary Burns can be reached at hilary.burns@globe.com. Follow her @Hilarysburns.