Students from middle-class families underrepresented at selective colleges, study finds

Opportunity Insights, co-directed by Brown Professor of Economics John Friedman, found that students from high-income backgrounds were significantly more likely to attend selective colleges than their lower-income peers.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Students who come from middle-class households are underrepresented at highly selective colleges and universities — but that could change if those institutions granted them a boost in the application and admissions process similar to that often given to children of alumni.

That’s according to a new report published on Wednesday, Feb. 12, by Opportunity Insights, a research team co-directed by Brown University Professor of Economics John Friedman.

The findings, reported by Friedman and colleagues at Harvard University, University of California-Berkeley and the Federal Reserve Board, built on research shared in a 2017 Opportunity Insights report concluding that many colleges were helping to level the economic playing field for students who came from different backgrounds.

John Friedman
John Friedman is a professor of economics at Brown.

For the new report, Friedman and colleagues analyzed data from standardized tests to discern what role test scores and family income played in admissions at “Ivy-plus” institutions: Ivy League universities, the University of Chicago, Duke University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University. Among their key findings: High-income students were 34 percent more likely to attend selective colleges than low-income students with the same SAT scores.

Friedman and his colleagues also found that, among students who scored exactly 1400 on the SAT, those who came from middle-class families were far more underrepresented at elite institutions than their peers from higher- and lower-income families.

“Middle-income students could be underrepresented because they apply at lower rates, because they are admitted at lower rates or because they matriculate at lower rates,” Friedman said. “Each of these forces may be present, and the relative strength of these forces may vary from college to college.”

Friedman said that students who come from families in the bottom 20 percent of earners are also underrepresented in elite colleges’ student bodies, though slightly less so, and?mostly because there is a much smaller pool of students from low-income families who have sufficiently high test scores to be considered at top private colleges. Past research, including Friedman’s own, has shown that many low-income students fall behind in high school due in part to disparities in their schools and neighborhoods.

Researchers used test score data to measure how large an application and attendance boost low- and middle-income students would need to receive for their representation at selective institutions to match their representation at colleges nationwide. They found that an SAT “bonus” of 160 points for students from households in the bottom 20 percent of earners, and a bonus of 96 points for students from households in the middle 20 percent of earners, would be sufficient. That point boost, or some other equivalent “bonus,” would lend lower-income students a similar preference that many selective colleges gave to children of alumni, recruited athletes and students from historically underrepresented groups, the study asserts.

“In terms of economic outcome for students who attend highly selective colleges, there’s almost no gap between students from high-income backgrounds and students from low-income backgrounds,” Friedman said. “If these student bodies included more students from diverse economic backgrounds, we could substantially increase intergenerational mobility for college students in the U.S.”

The full report is available for download at opportunityinsights.org/paper/undermatching. The researchers’ work was partially funded by the Internal Revenue Service (Contract No. TIRNO-16-E-00013).

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