Inequality in higher education creates barriers for lower-income students to attend college

Higher education is often hailed as the pinnacle of the American dream. As long as you study hard and get good grades, you, too, can get into the college of your choice and receive an education that will set you up for life. America has no shortage of elite institutions, from the notorious Ivy League to each state’s flagship university. In their senior years, both domestic and international high schoolers vie for a spot in the freshman class with the assumption that their hard work will translate into an acceptance letter. But many more factors are at play in the tricky game of elite college admissions—most notably, money. Even as universities possess the potential to be stepping stones to social mobility, many admissions practices such as legacy advantages, Early Decision admissions and application evaluation practices remain elitist, prioritizing wealthier applicants over their lower-income counterparts.

Even schools that claim to meet full financial aid often hand out insufficient aid packages, forcing students to undertake student loans or opt for a cheaper alternative. Until 1991, the Ivy League and 15 other similar institutions held annual meetings with the intention to offer the exact same aid packages to students who had been admitted to two or more participating institutions. Such sharing of information was anticompetitive—it forced students to pay a singular price without the ability to consider different offers from different schools, something many lower income students rely on to bargain for better aid packages.

In 1991, all eight Ivy Leagues and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were charged with price fixing, and the meetings were abolished. Still, collusion among elite institutions continues. On Jan. 9, five former students of prestigious universities filed a lawsuit against 16 colleges for fixing tuition for aid-seeking applicants. The 16 universities were part of the 568 Presidents Group, which calculates a student’s expected financial aid package using the same standardized metric. The lawsuit alleges that these universities, while claiming to be need-blind, prioritize applicants from wealthy donor families or consider student’s ability to pay when pulling from the waitlist. The recent allegations have yet to be verified or contested in a court of law.

While higher education has come a long way, obstacles against equitable admissions are still ingrained in its very framework.”

The conversation surrounding equitable admissions policies remains relevant today. Less affluent students arrive at the application process with many disadvantages. Application fees have spiked in recent years, costing from $60 to $90 to submit. This forces students who do not qualify for a fee waiver to limit their quantity of applications. Admissions policies like Early Decision, which give applicants an admissions advantage for applying early under a binding plan, also disadvantage lower-income students, for whom financial aid packages are essential to choosing a college. The threat of a binding acceptance without a guaranteed satisfactory aid package means that many lower income applicants opt for Regular Decision— where applicants do not receive a boost in their chances—rather than the early round. The price of higher education has also steadily increased over time; in 1990, Harvard’s yearly tuition (including room and board and adjusted for inflation) was $41,372. Now, it is $74,528, almost double its original cost. Without the help of robust financial aid programs, low-income families can rarely afford to send their children to study at these institutions.

The admissions process itself favors wealthier applicants, who often have more resources, information and opportunities at their disposal. For instance, college counselors can tailor a high schooler’s profile strategically to gain admittance from top schools. By paying for SAT and ACT testing preparation courses, students are able to score higher than those without the same funds. Legacy admissions, or the tradition of prioritizing applicants whose family members have attended or worked at the institution, are yet another way that colleges serve established families. This advantage is not based on a student’s merit or capabilities, but rather on their relation to other people.

Every year, first-generation students or those coming from low-income backgrounds receive offers of admission from their dream institutions: the first leap in future social mobility for their families. This can come through the Questbridge National College Match, a hyperselective program that matches low-income student finalists to the elite universities of their choosing. Once a student is matched, they receive a full ride to the institution. These spots are extremely competitive; out of the many low-income students selected as highly esteemed Questbridge finalists, fewer than 20% are matched, meaning the other students—both non-finalists and those not matched—must compete in the Regular Decision round for spots in the freshman class. Still, far more spots go to those of affluent upbringings. At the Washington University of St. Louis, 21.7% of the student population belonged to the top 1% of wealth, while only 6.1% of students came from the bottom 60%.

Students of lower socioeconomic backgrounds historically benefit the most from an elite education. According to Jenny Anderson of Quartz, a poorer student’s likelihood of making it into the top income quartile increases by a factor of 11 by attending a prestigious college. For students with more affluent upbringings, this likelihood only increases by a factor of four. However, the apparent lack of representation of low-income students manifests in many campus’s cultures. University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) alumna
Jasmine Nguyen, who graduated in 2021, was in the 3% of UPenn students hailing from the bottom 20% of American household income. Her more affluent peers, however, were often unaware of the obstacles poorer students face when seeking social mobility. Instead, Nguyen recalls classroom discussions where her classmates concluded that poorer people simply did not know how to make good decisions or were not as smart as their richer counterparts. Along a similar vein, UPenn Wharton School professor Nina Strohminger states that 25% of her students believe that the average American makes more than six figures. In actuality, according to “USA Today,” the average income totals around $51,480. By limiting equal representation, educational institutions like UPenn run the risk of breeding a largely unaware and unconscious student population that fails to see the full picture of American life.

Elite institutions have great potential to channel bright minds into brighter futures. While appreciating this potential, we must also be aware of its drawbacks and flaws. Higher education has come a long way since segregated schools based on race and sex, yet obstacles against equitable admissions are still ingrained in its very framework. Selective institutions remain unrepresentative and elitist, failing to deliver the American dream they represent. In seeking reform, we can one day look to a future where higher education can claim its rightful place in the American dream, offering better tomorrows to the future leaders of our generation regardless of their affluence.