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What obligations do America’s colleges and universities have to society at large? Are those different for public and private institutions? And do elite colleges have special responsibilities?

Two separate events this summer have placed a spotlight on those questions. The first, of course, is the Supreme Court decision regarding race-conscious admissions in the cases filed by Students for Fair Admissions against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. That decision has not only caused highly selective colleges to rethink their policies and procedures with regard to seeking racial diversity but has also had collateral impact and brought renewed scrutiny on legacy admission policies.

The second is the release of a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research by authors Raj Chetty and David J. Deming of Harvard and John N. Friedman of Brown University. The study, “Diversifying Society’s Leaders? The Causal Effects of Admission to Highly Selective Private Colleges,” examines how wealthy, privileged applicants benefit from admission practices at elite colleges and universities.

The paper received major attention from the mainstream media, but I’m not sure it breaks any new ground. What it does, though, is provide a deep dive into data and some context for ongoing discussions about inequities within college admission.

Chetty, Deming and Friedman pull together information from sources ranging from federal tax returns to SAT/ACT scores to application and admission records for individual colleges and universities to get a picture of how much the admission process at elite colleges benefits those who are wealthy and privileged. The researchers looked at three groups of universities:

  • Twelve “Ivy-Plus” institutions consisting of the eight Ivies, plus Duke and Stanford Universities; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and the University of Chicago.
  • Twelve other highly selective private colleges: the California Institute of Technology; Carnegie Mellon, Emory, Georgetown, Johns Hopkins, New York, Northwestern, Rice, and Vanderbilt Universities; the Universities of Notre Dame and Southern California; and Washington University in St. Louis.
  • Nine highly selective public flagship universities: Ohio State University and the Universities of California, Berkeley; California, Los Angeles; Florida; Georgia; Michigan at Ann Arbor; North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Texas at Austin; and Virginia.

The research concludes that one form of diversity not particularly sought or valued by elite private colleges is economic diversity.

A previous study published in 2017 by Chetty and Friedman with several other researchers found that 38 colleges, including five Ivies, enrolled more students from the top 1 percent of incomes than from the bottom 60 percent.

The new study builds on the previous one, finding that students from the top 1 percent of income brackets are 55 percent more likely to attend an Ivy Plus college than middle-class applicants with comparable credentials.

How much of that disproportion is due to admission practices, and how much is due to student choice in where to apply? Chetty and his co-authors find that while differences in application and matriculation rates account for about a third of this disproportion, a full two-thirds of it can be explained by higher admission rates for students from high-income families.

Those differences in admission rates by income are tied to three admission practices.

The first is legacy preference, which accounts for 46 percent of the variance. Chetty and his co-authors report that legacy applicants from the top 1 percent of incomes are five times as likely to be admitted as the average applicant with comparable credentials and demographic characteristics, while legacy applicants coming from income levels below the 90th percentile are three times as likely to be admitted.

Another 24 percent of the advantage enjoyed by applicants from the top 1 percent of incomes is tied to athletic recruiting. We have long known that being a recruited athlete may be the best of all admission “hooks”: discovery in the SFFA case showed that the admit rate for recruited athletes at Harvard with high academic scores is something like 83 percent, compared to 16 percent for other similarly placed applicants. Families that have the financial resources to pay for coaching and travel teams can improve the chances of athletic recruitment.

The remaining 30 percent in variance in admission rates between the top 1 percent and everyone else is attributable to differences in applicants’ nonacademic credentials. Specifically, Chetty et al. conclude that applicants coming from the top 1 percent of incomes are 1.5 times more likely to have strong nonacademic ratings (encompassing extracurricular activities and personal qualities) compared to the other 99 percent of applicants. The researchers find that this difference is linked to whether applicants attended a public or private high school, as students from private high schools “have much higher non-academic ratings (but no higher academic ratings) than peers with comparable test scores and demographics at other schools.”

That takes us back to our original questions. What should we think about the fact that elite colleges systematically cater to the wealthy? Is there anything wrong with that? The answer, like the answer to so many college admission questions, is “It depends.” It depends on your assumptions about higher education and the college admission process.

First of all, elite private colleges are just that—private. As such they have a right to make decisions that are in their self-interest. If they choose to see themselves as a clan or family and give preferences to those from within the family, they have that right. By contrast, public institutions are different, with obligations to the citizens in the states they serve. Public flagships giving preferences for state residents are defensible. Public flagships giving preferences to legacies are less defensible.

Second, elite colleges are businesses. They may not be motivated by profits, but revenue is an important driver, just like for any business. The question is whether, and how much, concerns for revenue should influence admission decisions.

But elite colleges are more than just businesses. They have an obligation to serve not only institutional interest, but also the public interest. The Bible (Luke 12:48) says that of those who are given much, much will be demanded. Much has been given to America’s elite institutions.

Suppose, for instance, that a college or university argued that a college education was a purely economic transaction, and that in the interest of maximizing revenue it was going to give preference to full-pay applicants, or even allot admission spots via silent auction, with those willing to pay the most being admitted. Such an institution might very well be able to fill its freshman class in such a fashion, but it would certainly spark public outrage.

Ethics are about ideals, about what should be the case. The college admission process should be about access, opportunity and fairness. It may be time to rethink some of the conventions of college admission that had their origins a century ago when the college-going population was very different—things like essays and recommendation letters. They make applying to college like applying to a private club.

We should be embarrassed by, and ashamed of, a college admission process that advantages those who are already privileged.

Jim Jump recently semiretired after 33 years as the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Va. He previously served as an admissions officer, philosophy instructor and women’s basketball coach at the college level and is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

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