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Askwith Education Forum

Askwith Education Forum Details Impact of Wealth on College Admissions

An eye-opening presentation sheds new light on elite admissions practices in higher education

A standing-room only crowd filled Askwith Lecture Hall on Tuesday as Harvard economist Raj Chetty delivered an eye-opening presentation on the impact private college admissions practices have on maintaining generational privilege for the hyper wealthy in America.

Chetty presented the data during the 90-minute Askwith Education Forum, “College Admissions and Generational Privilege,” which included a discussion with moderator Thomas Kane, professor and director of the Center for Education Policy Research (CEPR) at Harvard, and a panel featuring HGSE Professor Sue Dynarski and Lawrence Bobo, Harvard professor and dean of social sciences.

Detailing the admissions practices of highly selective private colleges — “Ivy-plus” schools, by his description — Chetty presented data that explored why the hyper wealthy have additional avenues to attending schools like Harvard and Yale compared to students of other economic classes. The presentation also showed the impact admission to Ivy-plus schools have on post-education outcomes, effectively shutting the less wealthy out of those benefits before they even enter the job market.

“I am so pleased that HGSE is hosting this incredible conversation today,” Dean Bridget Long said of the forum which was presented in cooperation with the Partnering in Education Research (PIER) group at CEPR. “As we consider the role of education today, questions about who has access to opportunity and who has been left out has never been more pressing. HGSE’s mission is to prepare education leaders and innovators who will change the world by expanding opportunities and improving outcomes for learners everywhere.”

Raj Chetty presenting in Askwith Hall
Raj Chetty presents data from his study, "The Determinants and Causal Effects of Admission to Highly Selective Private Colleges," at the Askwith Education Forum on September 12
Photo by Carolina Ruggero

In his presentation, Chetty asked two questions that the collected data answered in the affirmative: Do highly selective private colleges amplify the persistence of privilege across generations, and could those colleges diversify society’s leaders by changing their admissions policies?

“We basically find that it matters a great deal,” Chetty said, noting expected earnings and the likelihood of attending elite graduate schools and finding employment within traditionally prestigious jobs increase considerably for the “upper tail” of Ivy-plus students according to the data. Certain admissions practices such as athletic scholarships and legacy admissions policies also occur at a much higher admission rate for the “upper tail” of applicants. As the New York Times reported in July, these additional avenues for admission essentially make being wealthy its own qualification in admissions at some elite colleges.

Chetty used an interactive tool the Times published in September that showed some exceptions and outliers that reinforced the main findings. A school like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example — which does not have Division I athletic scholarships and legacy admissions — did not have the stark increase in admissions rates for the hyper wealthy shown by other schools that do.  

The panel debated ways to improve equity in admissions based on the findings, noting the recent Supreme Court decisions banning the use of affirmative action in admissions practices and some countermeasures schools have taken as a result. As Chetty’s data pointed out, an overwhelming number of Supreme Court justices in the modern era hail from these Ivy-plus institutions, further illustrating the importance of diversifying elite universities to broaden the backgrounds of America’s most influential decision-makers. While the overall impact on college admissions across America would be fractional, changes at the very top could have a big impact on the nation’s future.

“By diversifying who is admitted to these colleges, we would indeed end up diversifying who was ultimately in positions of leadership in the United States,” Chetty said. “By changing admissions practices in a small set of colleges in the United States can, indeed, change who is leading America and thereby potentially make the American Dream accessible to many.”

Kane, who moderated the discussion panel, reassured those on stage “this is a place for heresy” regarding big ideas and changes to the established system Chetty’s data clearly shows is not serving everyone equally.

Thomas Kane, Raj Chetty, Sue Dynarski, and Lawrence Bobo
L-r: Thomas Kane, Raj Chetty, Sue Dynarski, and Lawrence Bobo
Photo by Carolina Ruggero

“The only way we’re going to discover which of those ideas is wrong is with the kind of brilliant work that Raj and his colleagues have done,” said Kane. “This is one of the most important things U.S. higher education can do for education renewal across the country: it’s not just training teachers and future leaders, as important as that is. It’s using the tools of social science to help school systems discover the surprises in their own data.”

Dynarski advocated for several big changes like eliminating legacy admissions advantages, curtailing athletic scholarships that, at Ivys, often go to wealthy white athletes in economically niche sports, and to change the economic levers impacting higher education that encourage elite schools to maintain the status quo.

“The institutions need to grow. That would be a very easy way to increase representation in these systems, and I think it’s a moral imperative. The other thing we need to do is make more fantastic institutions,” Dynarski said. “Pour money into HBCUs and turn them into their own Harvards. The reason why it matters so much to get into Harvard is because the next set of schools down has so many fewer resources. So spread the wealth.”

Chetty — who said his next project is using this data to investigate mobility at public higher education — concluded by noting Ivy-plus institutions are just a small but important piece of the equity puzzle, one that’s finally taking the time to look inward at how it can change to better impact the world at large.

“My own view from studying these questions from many different angles is that there are many places we can make a difference in the K–12 education system, the degree of segregation in our neighborhoods and in how employers hire and assess merit,” he said. “And I think there’s a danger in any one group saying it could be this other group that makes a change. I think everyone can contribute.”

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