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5 Ways Elite-College Admissions Shut Out Poor Kids

Kids growing up poor in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City have no access to several Ivy League recruited sports: sailing, crew, rugby, hockey and diving.
LA Johnson
Kids growing up poor in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City have no access to several Ivy League recruited sports: sailing, crew, rugby, hockey and diving.

Take two 18-year-olds with equally stellar academic abilities. One comes from the socioeconomic bottom and one from the top. That lower-income student is one-third as likely to enroll in a selective college.

Often, when the media report on this phenomenon, known as undermatching, the focus is on the motivations of the students. Maybe low-income students think these schools are out of their league. In many cases, they fail to apply in the first place.

But a new report from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation takes a more pointed look at the other side of the table: the admissions policies of selective and elite colleges. (Note: The foundation is a supporter of NPR Ed.)

"Although neutral on its face," the report concludes, "the admissions process as it is implemented is actually skewed dramatically against the poor."

Among the examples cited in the report are:

  • Legacy preferences. At some colleges, if your father or grandmother went there, you are automatically advanced to the second round of admissions. The authors say this amounts to "affirmative action for the rich."
  • Demonstrated interest. Many colleges give preference to students who demonstrate interest by visiting campus. Don't have the cash to fly from, say, California's Central Valley to New Hampshire for the weekend? That can count against you.
  • Early decision. An early decision application means you find out sooner and promise to enroll if accepted. It's worth a lot: You are three to five times more likely to be admitted to the Ivy League with an early decision application, according to research cited in this paper. But students who need to compare financial aid packages from different schools can't play this game. According to the foundation's analysis of Common Applications, 29 percent of high-achieving students from families making more than $250,000 a year applied for early decision at one school. Only 16 percent of high-achieving students from families with incomes less than $50,000 did so.
  • Overweighting GPAs. In a 2014 survey of admissions officers at selective institutions, 82 percent said they attributed "considerable importance" to applicants' grades in college-prep courses, more than any other factor on an application. This seems pretty fair and straightforward. Except: Low-income students are more likely to go to small rural schools or big, under-resourced urban schools that don't offer as many AP or IB courses. And they may be steered away from taking those courses even when they are offered. So when the rich kids are turning in GPAs that top out at 5.0, many poorer kids have GPAs no higher than 4.0. They can't even make the first cut.
  • But here's the factor that surprised me the most:

    5. Athletic recruitment and scholarships.

    Recruited athletes are as much as four times as likely to be admitted to selective colleges as similarly qualified peers. Athletics are popularly thought of as the ticket to college for low-income and minority students. But the authors of this paper tell a different story: "Many of these slots ... go to wealthy, suburban, white students."

    They don't give hard numbers. But out of curiosity, I looked up the list of varsity sports teams at Harvard, Yale and Princeton, and compared them with the athletics programs in the three biggest public school systems: Los Angeles, New York City and Chicago.

    You'll find the same marquee sports in all six places: baseball, basketball, football, soccer, swimming, track and field. Even sports stereotyped as preppy, like lacrosse, tennis and golf, are available in at least some urban schools.

    But kids growing up poor in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City have little or no access to several Ivy League sports: crew, sailing, diving, squash and hockey. At least not through the easiest route — their public schools. Chicago and LA Unified have no fencing, gymnastics, rugby or skiing either, and New York City has no water polo.

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

    Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.