New Study on College Income Segregation: Middle Class Students Are Underrepresented at America’s Most Elite Colleges
A new study released last month shows that middle-class students are underrepresented at America’s most elite colleges. The study found that middle-class students attend “Ivy-plus” colleges (Ivy League schools plus Chicago, Duke, Stanford, and MIT) at lower rates than both lower- and higher-income peers with equivalent SAT scores. This data on the “missing middle” is just one of several important findings emerging from the study, which was conducted by a team of economists focused on opportunity in higher education. The study analyzed how much of the income segregation in higher education is explained by differences in student qualifications, as measured by SAT scores. The analysis led to four key findings:
1. Students from lower- and middle-income families attend selective colleges at lower rates than high-income peers with equivalent test scores. Noting a particularly striking statistic, the researchers highlight that “high-income students are 35% more likely to attend selective colleges than low income students with the same test scores.”
2. Middle-income students – those from families earning between $25,000 and $111,000 per year – are “especially underrepresented” at the country’s most elite schools, defined for purposes of this study as the Ivy League plus Chicago, Duke, Stanford, and MIT. Students from the lowest-income families, those earning less than $25,000 per year are also underrepresented at these schools, but not to the same extent as their middle-class counterparts. This is due to the relatively low number of students from low-income families that have SAT scores on par with the requirements for admission to Ivy-plus schools. To explain this SAT score gap, the researchers point to prior studies that suggest low income students fall behind in high school due to the cumulative effect of economical, educational, and environmental disparities present from birth.
3. Giving low-income students an admissions preference roughly equivalent to the admissions boost given to legacy applicants and other preferred groups would go a long way to close the representation gap. A shift in the admissions process that gives students from underrepresented groups the equivalent of a 160-point SAT score boost could have a tremendous impact on income representation, particularly at elite schools. The data show that 7.3% of low-income students with a 1400 on the SAT currently attend an Ivy-plus college, but the hypothetical admissions preference that the researchers analyzed would increase Ivy-plus attendance for these students to 25.8%.
4. Increasing representation of low- and middle-income students at selective U.S. colleges could help increase income mobility. The study found that evening out college attendance rates could have a significant impact on income mobility. Current data show that there is a 22% gap in the portion of high- versus low-income students who eventually reach the top of the income ladder as adults. Admissions policies designed to increase the rate of lower- and middle-income student attendance at selective colleges could help close this gap.
This new study was conducted by the same team of researchers and economists who made headlines in 2017 when they released “Mobility Report Cards” on each college in the U.S. The Mobility Report Cards research, which highlights access to college and income outcomes across the socioeconomic spectrum, helped launch a public conversation about the role of colleges in helping students climb the income scale. Now, by adding SAT score data to the analysis, the researchers are one step closer to developing admissions policy guidance that could help shape more equitable practices in the future. As they emphasize:
Changing the colleges that students attend could increase social mobility even without addressing disparities that emerge before students apply to college.
This research team has demonstrated that colleges can be an engine of economic opportunity and mobility, but the colleges with the greatest potential to boost long-term earnings (Ivy-plus schools) typically have the fewest students from low-income families. Moreover, the research has helped to highlight the very real crunch that many students in the middle now feel as once-attainable colleges become increasingly expensive. The researchers plan to look into plausible and scalable policy solutions that can help address some of these issues and we look forward to following their findings in the future.