Ivy League and other highly selective colleges are often criticized for catering to the privileged elites of our society rather than appealing to students from low-income families who will be the first in their families to attend college. One of the core purposes of our college admissions blog is to debunk misconceptions about the highly selective college admissions process and it’s this particular misconception — that these institutions basically only cater to the privileged — that we wish to debunk today. Do these institutions admit students whose parents and grandparents attended the very institutions? Yes. Do these institutions admit students whose families have donated millions of dollars toward endowments? Yes. But to suggest that admissions officers at these schools aren’t seeking out students from low-income backgrounds, whose parents work blue collar jobs, and/or who never attended college, is just plain wrong. Ever read a press release about an elite college’s incoming class? You bet there will be a percentage of students who will be the first in their families to attend college.
The Perception that Elite Colleges Cater to the Privileged
There’s an interesting piece by Jane S. Shaw up on “RealClearEducation” entitled “How To Make Elite Colleges Less Elitist” that offers some valid insight into the privilege of many students at highly selective colleges, including the Ivy League schools. As she writes, “According to a study by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, colleges are ‘highly stratified by socioeconomic class, with 72 percent of students in the nation’s most competitive institutions coming from families in the wealthiest quartile.’ Similarly, a study for the Internal Revenue Service found ‘children whose parents are in the top 1% of the income distribution are 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy League college than those whose parents are in the bottom income quintile.'” We won’t dispute this data nor will we dispute the notion that that there are a whole lot of privileged students at our nation’s most elite institutions. It’s true.
These institutions can certainly do a whole lot more to try to curb the number of students from privileged backgrounds admitted each year (one example might be choosing not to admit so many students from preparatory schools like Exeter and Andover). But at Ivy Coach, we’re not about stating problems without offering practical ideas toward solutions. So here’s one. These institutions depend on major donations. So we don’t happen to like — but we understand — why the children of major donors (and most people absolutely underestimate what we’re talking about when we say major donors) so often earn admission. These schools rely on these donations to subsidize the cost of, say, students receiving financial aid.
But what about the legacy applicants, the children of alumni, who haven’t donated considerable sums to the school over the years. Maybe the parent only donated a few times in the twenty-five years since he or she graduated. Sure, these applicants aren’t flagged as major development cases but their legacy status still gives them a nice boost in the Early round. It’s these very students who could be plucked out of an incoming class at an elite institution to make room for more underprivileged students. And while we recognize we’re proposing that the super wealthy still get all the benefits of their elite status while the little bit less privileged do not, it’s at least an idea towards a solution — one even somewhat in line with America’s tax system. It’s at least an idea towards fostering greater socioeconomic parity.
Highly Selective Colleges Do Want Underprivileged Students
Shaw goes on to write in her piece, “The Cooke study not only recommends giving preference to students whose family income is low, but also to students whose parents have low-status occupations and low levels of education. It approves of techniques like the UCLA law school’s ‘class-based affirmative action program,’ which considers ‘parental education, income, and net worth,’ as well as ‘the applicant’s neighborhood (percentage of families headed by single-parent households, proportion of families on public assistance and percentage who had not graduated from high school).'”
But let us be clear — admissions officers at our nation’s elite institutions are already doing this. They are already seeking out students whose parents work low-status occupations with low-levels of education. You don’t think an admissions officer at Yale is going to lick his lips when he reads the file of an outstanding applicant whose dad drives a taxi by day and works as a janitor by night? If you don’t think so, you’re mistaken. Admissions officers at these schools love to come across the files of underprivileged students and when they do, they’re absolutely rooting for them! It’s human nature.
The problem is that, in spite of their efforts, these institutions simply don’t get enough applicants from such backgrounds. And try as they might, these schools can and must do more to inspire these students to apply. They must come up with better and more effective ways to appeal to these students, to let them know that attending these schools is within the realm of possibility. As Shaw ends her piece, “A little more recruitment effort, not social engineering, will bring in students who are being left out of selective colleges.” She’s right on. Just as there exists racial preference in admissions, there exists socioeconomic preference in admissions — socioeconomic preference for students from low-income backgrounds too. Elite institutions just need to do more to let it be known that such is the case.
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