A Simple Way to Equalize the Ivies?

In this week’s New York Times, Dana Goldstein and Anemona Hartocollis write about the difference in enrollments at the Ivy Plus (eight Ivy League universities plus Duke, Stanford, M.I.T., and the University of Chicago) institutions when students’ family incomes are considered. The source of the data for these reporters is a paper co-authored by economists Raj Chetty, John Friedman, Emmanuel Saez, Nicholas Turner, and Danny Yagan, Income Segregation and Intergenerational Mobility Across Colleges in the United States. The paper follows their 2017 research paper, Mobility Report Cards: The Role of Colleges in Intergenerational Mobility.

A major finding of the 2017 research was that students from low-income families have excellent outcomes after attending selective schools, but there are very few low-income students at such schools. The soon-to-be-released paper examines the data and proposes that utilizing a modified scoring system based on SAT scores designed to add weighting to low- and middle-income applicants would increase their representation at the 12 Ivy Plus schools by more than 300% from 7.3% to 25.8%. When SAT scores are reviewed for all 976 selective schools in the original study, 75% of affluent students with SAT scores of 1080 or greater attended one of the selective schools, while only 51% of low-income students with similar SAT scores attended one of the schools.

The Times reporters quote Friedman, who states “you cannot explain the very high shares of families from high-income families solely by saying that they are the ones who have higher test scores.” The researchers recommend that adding a weighting to SAT scores for low- and middle-income applicants similar to the weighting given to legacy applicants would increase the percentage of low- and middle-income students attending Ivy Plus institutions. The reporters, in turn, write that the study does not consider student qualifications beyond test scores or how public policy designed to make college more affordable might affect their recommendations.

Additionally, the study does not address how adopting this strategy would affect university finances (a simple assumption that full-pay students are replaced by low-income students would require different funding sources than the high-income families who pay from their personal assets). Lastly, the reporters write that the study does not propose where the reductions in admitted students would come from if these policies were enacted, but infer that the most likely reductions could come from legacy applicants, athletes, Blacks and Latinos, all of which are groups receiving additional weighting in current admissions practices at these elite schools.

Reading the article and the research papers triggered a personal reflection. Many years ago, I attended one of these 12 institutions as an undergraduate from a low-income family. I remember being surprised that some members of my wider family did not like the idea that I would be attending a high-cost private university when I could have attended my state’s flagship university on a fully funded scholarship. I remember the vast difference between the finances of many classmates from high-income families versus mine. Colleges that have a serious interest in recruiting a higher percentage of low-income students will have to address the reality that low-income students may not feel at home in a setting where a disproportionate percentage of students are from the top one percent of earners. Additional funding sources beyond loans for cost of living, study abroad programs and unpaid internships may be needed to equalize the footing for low-income students. Research like this can kick-start policy discussions, but an appropriate implementation will require a cold hard dose of reality and some common sense.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence