There’s an easy way to change college admissions so the top schools don’t have so many wealthy students

Catharine Bond Hill is managing director of Ithaka S+R and president emerita of Vassar College. Here, she writes her opinion that when considering college admissions frenzy, people often mistake symptoms for causes. 

The frenzied atmosphere that pervades as high school seniors and their families make college decisions showed no signs of improvement this year. While young people are faced with difficult choices and trade-offs, some have already been made for them: The admissions playing field is far from level, and our nation’s colleges and universities can do better.

Recent research by Stanford University Professor Raj Chetty and his colleagues confirmed that getting a bachelor’s degree is important to future earnings, yet the nation’s selective colleges and universities primarily attract students from the top of the income distribution, thus limiting schools’ potential contributions to equal opportunity and economic mobility.

At some prestigious universities, the percentage of students from the top 20 percent of the income distribution is estimated to be higher than 70 percent (and between 15 and 20 percent for students from the top one percent).

This mirrors the situation at many of the most selective liberal arts colleges.

A variety of factors are at work: College rankings, particularly those published by U.S. News and World Report, legacy admissions policies and early decision practices are frequently cited as causes of this state of affairs at the most selective colleges and universities.

If only college administrators would ignore the rankings and amend their admissions policies, the thinking goes, top schools would admit a much more socioeconomically diverse student body. While tempting, this reasoning confuses symptoms with causes and ultimately distracts higher education leaders from pursuing realistic solutions.

Let’s start with the rankings. They are blamed for the competition between colleges and universities that drives up spending, not just on academic programs but also amenities like single rooms and great food that don’t directly contribute to the educational mission. In turn, this increased spending pushes up costs and price and makes these schools more inaccessible to low- and middle-income families, even when colleges offer need-based financial aid.

The rankings exist, however, as a reflection of the competition among schools. They are not the cause of that competition.

Colleges and universities want to attract talented students because they believe these students will be able to benefit the most from the education offered and are likely to be the most successful graduates. In addition, most faculty prefer to teach the most talented students possible, who can appreciate the academic disciplines to which faculty have committed their professional lives.

For a variety of reasons, including the way we fund K-12 education in America, the most academically ready students tend to come from higher-income families.

Unfortunately, the differences in income levels between those at the top and those in the middle and bottom in America have widened. Colleges today compete for the high-income students, and those students and families are willing and able to pay the higher tuitions that are used in part to support the services that these families desire.

If incomes were more equal, the price that the wealthiest families would be willing to pay (regardless of rankings) wouldn’t be as different from what middle- and lower-income families could pay. Therefore, interest in wealthy, talented students drives competition among schools, and the rankings are responsive to and reflect that competition.

If rankings didn’t exist, these colleges would still be competing with each other for talented students and doing so through spending on a variety of programs and services that these students desire.

Legacy admissions and early decision options are two key tools that schools use to attract these higher-income, talented students. One assumption is that if colleges eliminated these policies, they would recruit a more socioeconomically diverse student body.

This would only be the case, however, if the effect of these policies on the economic diversity of the student body is an unintended consequence instead of being part of the justification for these policies. If colleges are forced to eliminate legacy admissions or early decision policies, it is not clear that more lower-income students would be admitted.

Yet if schools want to admit greater numbers of lower-income students, they can do so now, even with legacy admissions preferences and early decision.

Such moves require greater commitment of resources to financial aid, resources which then can’t be spent on competing for the appealing higher-income students.

Franklin & Marshall College, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Richmond, the University of Texas at Austin and Vassar College are examples of institutions that have made the hard trade-offs to reallocate resources to need-based aid.

Colleges and universities receive significant public support. If policymakers understand and endorse the benefits of advancing greater socioeconomic diversity at our most selective institutions, public support could be tied to progress in enrolling socioeconomically diverse students.

We need to change the trade-offs that these colleges and universities face as they decide between talented high-income and talented low- and middle-income applicants.