New York Times reports on inequality at College

Alex Fredman

January 27, 2017

Twenty-one percent of Dartmouth students come from families in the top one percent of total income earners, a recent New York Times report on college economic diversity found.

The study, using data from the Class of 2013, revealed that Dartmouth students have disproportionately wealthy backgrounds, even in comparison to students at other Ivy League and highly-selective schools.

According to the report, the median family income of a Dartmouth student is $200,400, which is the second highest among Ivy League schools and 24th among colleges nationwide. Dartmouth ranks highest in the Ivy League and 11th among all colleges for students from the top one percent of earners, referring to those with a family income of $630,000 or higher per year.

While 69 percent of students come from the top 20 percent of family incomes, only 2.6 percent of students are from the bottom 20 percent. This data places Dartmouth sixth among Ivy League institutions and 2,315th of all colleges studied for the share of students from the bottom fifth of income brackets. The average income percentile for a Dartmouth student is the 83rd percentile.

For 34-year-old Dartmouth graduates, the median individual income is $76,600, the study found. However, for men in this category, median individual income is $92,700 and for women, it is $64,500. The average graduate has an income in the 77th percentile, though “rich” students’ incomes are in the 78th percentile on average, and “poor” students’ are in the 73rd.

The report also found that 50 percent of students from the bottom fifth of incomes moved to the top fifth as adults, putting Dartmouth at 100th among all colleges but eighth in the Ivy League in the chance lower-class students have to become upper-class adults. Eleven percent of students moved up two or more income quintiles, making Dartmouth fifth in the Ivy League and 2,004th of all colleges in overall financial mobility.

The College’s admission process is need-blind for domestic students, which means that their financial situation is not considered as a part of their application. However, several external factors cause highly-selective schools like Dartmouth to have disproportionately wealthy students, said Bev Taylor, founder of Ivy Coach, a New York-based college consulting firm.

“Wealthy families can send their children to the best high schools,” Taylor said. “They can get the best SAT, ACT, subject test and AP tutoring. They can hire the best consultants, and when their child is getting an A-, or worse, a B+, they can hire a tutor for that course.”

Taylor added that parents with higher incomes often have college in mind even when considering preschool options for their children.

“You’d be amazed at how we get phone calls from parents who are just looking for nursery schools, and the right pre-K, because if they’re not in the right pre-K, my goodness, they might not get into the right kindergarten and the right elementary school,” Taylor said.

Another factor related to this issue, according to Taylor, is the relatively large percentage of students admitted each year via early decision. Taylor said that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to apply to schools in the early decision round because they don’t have the option to compare their financial aid packages to those from other schools.

Over 40 percent of Dartmouth’s classes for four of the five past years have been composed of early decision students. Significant numbers of these incoming students are more likely to be from wealthy families, Taylor said.

Yet there are also implicit social factors behind the disproportionate wealth gap in highly selective schools, sociology professor Kimberly Rogers said.

“There are certain cultural beliefs that people have about Ivy League institutions,” Rogers said. “People seek out institutions that feel like home to them.”

Rogers added that elements such as family legacy and strong links to preparatory schools provide the social connections that make wealthier students more likely to apply to Ivy League schools.

“There’s a selection effect that happens, where people who are from a certain background seek out people who are from similar backgrounds,” Rogers said. “That’s something sociologists call homophily. It’s the idea that birds of a feather flock together.”

Rogers said that while many of these issues are societal and out of the College’s direct control, Dartmouth’s large financial aid awards for disadvantaged students are important for helping those students afford the price of education

In an email statement, College spokesperson Diana Lawrence wrote that the average need-based grant given out by Dartmouth is $44,580, about $4,000 higher than the average amount given among schools in the Consortium on Financing Higher Education.

“Dartmouth is committed to access, affordability and expanding the socioeconomic diversity of our student body,” Lawrence wrote.

She added that Dartmouth recently joined the American Talent Initiative, an organization aimed at increasing the number of high-achieving, low-income students in undergraduate institutions with high graduation rates.

Although the College uses a need-blind admission process, Taylor said highly-selective schools will often look at whether students marked on their application that they require financial aid and whether they are first-generation college students.

“There is no such thing as totally need-blind,” Taylor said.