America’s Top Colleges Have a Rich Kid Problem

In case you ever wondered just how much wealthy students dominate America’s top colleges, here’s more evidence from a new report from the Century Foundation. At the most selective schools in the country, 70 percent of students come from the wealthiest quarter of U.S. families. Just 14 percent come from the poorest half. If you think higher education should be a ladder for upward mobility, then you should regard these numbers as a disgrace. As we’ve written before at The Atlantic, elite schools do a consistently poor job recruiting the intelligent but low-income high school students who could benefit most from a top-notch education. Part of their problem, as Josh Freedman explained for us recently, is that many of them can’t afford it. Other than a few schools sitting atop enormous endowments, most institutions can only afford to hand out large amounts of aid to individual students. But the roughly 80 schools in the "most competitive" category — which is based on Barrons rankings — should be the exceptions. And it’s not as if there aren’t enough smart, poor students to fill up classrooms. As economists Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery have shown, about 39 percent of America’s high-achieving students are from the country’s poorest 50 percent of students. These are teenagers who manage an A- average in school and finish among the 10 percent of SAT or ACT takers. Half of them never even apply to a selective college, which would include schools ranging from the "very competitive" category to the "most competitive" category. If the wealthiest schools in the country wanted more economic diversity, they could have it.

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