America's Top Colleges Have a Rich-Kid Problem

The wealthiest schools in the country could have more economic diversity if they wanted it. So why don't they?

In case you ever wondered just how much wealthy students dominate America's top colleges, here's a nice illustration from a new report by 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. And while these statistics date back to 2006, I think it's safe to say they haven't changed greatly in the last few years.

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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 colleges 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 it's expensive. Low-income undergrads need financial aid, and many institutions either don't have the resources, or would simply prefer to deploy them elsewhere. Others have the money and are willing to use it, but aren't sufficiently aggressive about reaching out to a population of students who often don't realize they have the academic skills to attend a great school or that aid would cover most of their expenses.

But it's certainly 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. Most 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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*There are roughly 80 schools in the "most competitive" category, which is based on Barron's rankings. Here's a list of the institutions via the New York Times.

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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