While American colleges are becoming more diverse, the most competitive schools in the country remain largely homogenous when it comes to income. Over 70 percent of students in the country’s most selective schools come from families in the wealthiest quartile. Only three percent come from the poorest quartile. And according to a new report by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, high-achieving low-income students have the odds stacked against them before the application process begins.

Very few low-income students attend highly selective colleges and universities 

Getting into an elite college’s[1] applicant pool is the first hurdle for high-achieving low-income students. These students have limited access to college-level programs like Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate, programs that elite colleges weight heavily in their admissions process. That limited access also means their GPA is less likely to be “weighted” on a 5.0 scale rather than the standard 4.0 scale, so they can look less impressive next to their more privileged peers. These students are also half as likely as their wealthy counterparts to take SAT/ACT prep courses, which further disadvantages them in an important criterion for selective schools. 

These aspects are potentially damaging once a poor student applies to an elite school, but it’s likely that she won’t ever get that far. Only 23 percent of high-achieving low-income students even apply to the highly selective schools they’re qualified for. Researchers found that one of the primary reasons that high-achieving low-income students don’t apply to selective schools is that they don’t think they can afford it.[2]

Only 23 percent of high-achieving low-income students even apply to the highly selective schools they’re qualified for.

Tuition has increased across the board, but has absolutely skyrocketed at elite institutions. A $45,000/year price tag looks impossible for a family earning poverty-level wages, especially if they aren’t familiar with sometimes byzantine financial aid system. More than a quarter of high-achieving low-income students fail to apply for federal financial aid, which indicates widespread confusion about financial aid and how to pay for college.

The low-income students who overcome all of these obstacles tend to excel academically, unlike the student-athletes who received preferential admissions treatment. So the question is not whether low-income students are qualified to attend elite colleges. The question is whether these colleges will address any of the application barriers they’ve indirectly put in place for low-income students.

 “College will never be the great equalizer if the brightest of the poor cannot even get in the door.”

Keeping elite colleges financially homogenous doesn’t just hurt low-income students during their college career - it effectively hampers their earnings potential for the rest of their life. “High-achieving students who attend more selective schools graduate at higher rates, earn higher incomes, and are more likely to pursue a graduate degree…in other words, where you go to school matters.”

The report authors advocate for using low socioeconomic status as a criterion for admissions preference, just like athletic or legacy status. This one change could help give strong students from low-income backgrounds a leg up in the admissions process, and yield lifelong benefits for them. But low-income students also need supportive and comprehensive college counseling that helps them navigate the admissions and financial aid process. Too many students are missing out on the opportunities they deserve because of an intimidating price tag.



[1] The report authors defined selective/elite colleges as “those that receive more applications than they accept and whose enrolled students have high levels of academic preparation.” They define “high-achieving” as “those students who scored in the top academic quartile on a 10th grade reading and mathematics assessment administered as part of the Education Longitudinal Study and who graduated from high school.”

[2] Jennifer Giancola, Ph.D and Richard D. Kahlenberg, J.D. (January 2016). True Merit: Ensuring Our Brightest Students Have Access to Our Best Colleges and Universities. The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. Available at http://www.jkcf.org/assets/1/7/JKCF_True_Merit_Report.pdf