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Yes, colleges favor rich kids. How much should we care?

Why the focus on admissions at elite colleges gives those schools clout they ought not have, and distracts from bigger issues facing higher education.

At Harvard, about 300 students in each class hail from the top 1 percent.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

To many of us, the fact that rich people have an advantage in college admissions is far from surprising.

But in the last few weeks, the issue has scandalized us anew. In July, a study from economists Raj Chetty, David Deming, and John Friedman revealed that students in the top 1 percent are more likely to attend elite schools than middle-class students with similar SAT scores. The US Department of Education has now begun an investigation into how much advantage Harvard gives to legacy applicants, who tend to skew wealthier.

At Harvard, something like 300 students in each class (out of nearly 2,000) hail from the top 1 percent. Which is — without question — a lot. And if you’re outraged, I get it. But training our klieg lights on a few hundred people feels like an enormous disservice to the nearly 20 million students who will attend college this fall — and the many others who didn’t make the leap from high school to college.

Here are three reasons to spend a lot less time on this issue:


First, though we tend to put elite institutions on a pedestal, they are not the last word in virtue. Sure, they bring together amazing professors and impressive students. But they are not the ultimate arbiters of who is deserving and who is not. And our incessant arguments over who they admit gives them powers they ought not have.

Admissions offices — and elite schools, more generally — are just groups of people. People who seek the glorification of their own institution. That’s not a bad thing, but it might mean that they want to admit the child or grandchild of someone who went to their institution. They are in the business of cultivating a community, and loyalty.

Imagine, for a second, that you apply to Brown and are waitlisted. But over the summer, you get in because a student who had been admitted couldn’t attend for health reasons. You’re thrilled! You’re a Brown student!


Brown University's campus in Providence. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Now, imagine if the student who dropped out for health reasons never got sick. She didn’t bow out, and you never got off the waiting list. Instead of Brown, you went to the University of Connecticut. Are you a less smart person? Clearly not.

And if you do end up at UConn, you’ll probably get an amazing education. As someone who spent time teaching at the university level, I saw how incredibly hard it is to become a professor in this country. Indeed, it’s so tough (far, far too tough — but that’s another column) that a lot of those who snag tenure-track positions earned their doctorates at places like Yale, Duke, Berkeley, and MIT. So whether you end up at Cal State Fullerton or University of Missouri, you’ll likely have a professor who learned their craft at a top-ranked school.

Our endless cultural focus on a few elite schools simply isn’t healthy for the country.

The second reason to worry less about the overrepresentation of wealthy families at top-ranked schools is that these schools simply mirror America. Money gets you all sorts of access, and I’m not sure that focusing on the admissions office at Duke is going to change that. Money buys you memberships to fancy clubs where you can meet other rich people (and establish useful, life-long connections). It gets your kids into excellent elementary and secondary schools, and it allows you to purchase concierge medicine to skip the maddening lines that everyone else has to wait in.


Though colleges and universities generally seek to do good things for the world, they are very much in the business of perpetuating themselves, growing their endowments, and — from time to time — adding a wing onto the library. Which is to say: It helps to have the very richest Americans in their ranks — families who can help make that library wing a reality. Convincing schools not to embrace those folks is going to be tough, especially when many prospective students and their parents are impressed by shiny new buildings.

Chetty’s study notes that a disproportionate number of America’s leaders — including a quarter of US senators — hail from 12 institutions: the Ivy League, plus MIT, University of Chicago, Duke, and Stanford. Harvard alone boasts an impressive list of alums in the Senate, ranging from conservative firebrand Tom Cotton to liberal lion Chuck Schumer.

It would certainly be ideal for the nation’s leaders to have attended a wider range of schools, including more state schools and community colleges. Nearly half of Americans have no college degree, and they have virtually no representation in Congress, which is deeply unfair. But does it matter that Cotton and Schumer both spent a few years in Cambridge? As a country, we’ve become overly obsessed with who gets to spend four years crisscrossing Harvard Yard.


Students celebrated graduating from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., in May.Ted Shaffrey/Associated Press

And here’s the last reason that we should worry less about elite schools and the small group of wealthy people with advantages at those schools. Even for those who aren’t the richest — i.e., their family won’t be donating that library wing — their access to resources is tremendous.

Many of these resources are things that most kids have little or no access to. Like deep, specialized, technical knowledge, which, increasingly, is an effective road to wealth. The kind of knowledge it takes to land in one of the country’s highest-earning occupations, like medicine or software engineering.

If you’re a kid, it’s undoubtedly helpful to have knowledgeable parents around when you come home with a tough physics or math assignment. Many folks in top-earning professions marry people they meet on the job (or in training) — turning a $350,000-a-year salary into a family income of $700,000 a year, and compounding the concentration of knowledge in the home.

Certainly, not everyone in the top 1 percent has a highly technical job, and not everyone is self-made. But many came to their wealth from relatively modest backgrounds. And many have gotten where they are not just by, say, being good at math, but by being extraordinarily motivated. When they have kids, that striving is unlikely to abate.

This is a thorny thicket, because it’s unclear what exactly we could do to even things out. You can’t really tell high-earning couples to get divorced. Or to stop encouraging their kids to work really hard. Or to stop shuttling them around to robotics competitions or coding camp.


What we can and should do is focus more on using rigorously tested strategies to engage and teach the millions of kids in this country who would benefit from a high-quality K-12 education. An education that allows them to see how their learning can be applied. We can help them discover topics that make them passionate, and guide them to careers that leave them fulfilled — which is pretty much all any of us can hope for.

We can make robotics competitions and coding camps more available to everyone. And we can spend far less brain power worrying about how Princeton admits the 1,500 students in its freshman class.

Learning to love learning, whether it’s about machinery or supply chains or how the brain works — and to engage deeply with those around you — should be our primary focus. Most kids will never even visit Harvard or Stanford. And our outsized focus on these schools distracts from what’s really important.

Pedestrians passed a dormitory in Harvard Yard.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Follow Kara Miller @karaemiller.