August News: Bias at Elite Colleges, Legacy Admissions Challenges, AI Pitfalls

Aug 1, 2023

Watershed Study Confirms Preference for Wealthy Students at Elite Colleges


A robust new study, the results of which were released this week, shows a disproportionate number of students from rich families at elite universities – and offers quantifiable data to support that wealth is “its own qualification in selective college admissions.” The findings conclude that controlling for grades, class rigor, and SAT and ACT scores, students from families in the top 1 percent of income (more than $611,000 a year) were 34 percent more likely to be admitted to elite schools than the average applicant; students from families in the top 0.1 percent of income were more than twice as likely to be admitted to elite institutions.


The study was conducted by Opportunity Insights, a non-partisan, not-for-profit group of economists that is “united in (their) passion to understand how to improve economic opportunities for all Americans.” The group analyzed the following: federal income tax records; 1098-T tax forms on college attendance; Pell grant records; SAT and ACT score data, and application and admissions records from the eight Ivy League schools, as well as Stanford, Duke, MIT, University of Chicago, and several flagship public universities. Representative data spans from 1999 to 2015, and much of it accounts for nearly all college students in that time period. Additionally, the researchers had access to detailed (anonymous) admissions from at least three of the twelve elite schools, which pertains to 500,000 applications.


The data shows that the elite colleges gave preference to children of alumni, recruited athletes, and private school attendees. The most significant advantage for ultra-wealthy students was found to be legacy admissions. A high-income applicant was much more likely to be accepted at a parent’s alma mater than at other top-twelve institutions. Athletes were found to have been admitted at four times the rate of non-athletes, and students from the top 1 percent of income were more than twice as likely to be athletes than students from the bottom 60 percent. 

“Nonacademic ratings,” which include volunteer work, extracurricular activities, and personality traits, also played an important role in admissions. Students from the top 1 percent were more likely to receive higher nonacademic ratings than their less advantaged counterparts; in fact, those from the top 0.1 percent were 1.5 times as likely to have high nonacademic ratings than their middle class peers. Controlling for standardized test scores these same high-income applicants did not have higher academic ratings. Perhaps the most important factor in a wealthy applicant’s nonacademic score is a letter of recommendation from guidance counselors at private high schools. Beyond letters, counselors will often make personal phone calls to admissions officers to advocate on students’ behalf, a practice that just does not happen at public high schools.


M.I.T. is a bit of an outlier among the top elite private schools as it gives no preference to legacy students or recruited athletes. Overall, the data shows that M.I.T. displays no clear preference for wealthy students. Additionally, the public flagship universities studied – schools like UT Austin and UVA – showed no correlation between admittance rates and income. Furthermore, schools like UCLA go as far as not accepting letters of recommendation.

Applicants from families earning less than $68,000 per year were also found to be more likely to get in to elite schools than their middle class counterparts; however, there were fewer applicants from this financial bracket, which is no surprise at the annual sticker price for elite institutions can be higher than such a family’s annual income (as astronomical as $65,524 at Columbia University).

Since 2015 (where the study’s data ends), some of the top twelve elite private colleges have instituted programs aimed to improve income diversity among their students. Stanford, Princeton, Harvard, and Brown offer free tuition (but do not necessarily cover other substantial costs) for families making under a certain threshold. Princeton, in fact, now gives free tuition to one-fourth of its students, and low-income students account for one-fifth of its student body.


The data collected from the study presents a definitive picture of an elite college admissions landscape that allows wealth to play an outsized role. Although elite institutions are far from the only shrewd choice for college hopefuls, attending an elite private college or university offers significant advantages: doubling a student’s chance of attending a top graduate school, tripling a student’s change of working at firms considered prestigious, and significantly increasing a student’s chance to enter the top 1 percent of earners. According to the conclusions drawn by the New York Times, these inequitable policies have “amounted to affirmative action for the children of the 1 percent.” Whether one agrees with this assessment, the Opportunity Insights study is a clear call to action for much-needed reform in the college admissions process. 

Study of Elite College Admissions Data Suggests Being Very Rich Is Its Own Qualification (NY Times) – 7/24/23

Business Schools Admissions Grapple With New Diversity Challenges


With affirmative action no longer a tool for business school admissions, a student’s personal statement has taken on greater importance and could be a way for some institutions to stem the loss of diversity on campuses. Whereas Harvard Business School removed an essay question that could be construed as a “stand-in” for a race/ethnicity “checkbox,” other schools, such as Yale and Kellogg, have introduced changes to their personal statement assignments that invite candidates to share stories about their backgrounds. Some, such as Duke, have added optional essays in which candidates can share their personal stories.


Much of what we have been focusing on in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision is how this ruling will affect undergraduate admissions, but graduate school admissions have been thrown into similar tumult.

Some predicted fallout:

  • B-schools might rely on more low-income and first generation students to help promote diversity efforts.
  • Outreach efforts will cost schools money: the University of California system has spent $500 million on diversity efforts – with mixed results – since affirmative action was banned.
  • Test-optional policies may extend to graduate admissions as institutions work to find ways to continue to attract and enroll inclusive incoming classes.

One other interesting point this article raises is that military colleges do not fall under the same ban. Military leaders were able to convince the court that affirmative action in a military education context is “essential to national security,” and thus military institutions are exempt from the ruling.

The End of Affirmative Action: What It Means For MBA Admissions (Poets & Quants) – 7/20/23

Wesleyan Leads the Way in Ending Legacy Preferences in Admissions


Weeks after the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action, Wesleyan University, a prominent liberal arts college in Connecticut, has ended legacy preferences as part of its admissions process. Although Wesleyan’s President, Michael S. Roth, has called legacy status’ current role in the current admissions process “negligible,” by such a prominent institution as Wesleyan abandoning preferences for candidates who are relatives of alumni and donors, the school’s leaders send a strong message about a process that many think lacks “basic fairness.”


Legacy admissions has been under scrutiny for decades but never more than now, in the months after affirmative action’s dissolution. College admissions is currently at a pivot point and legacy preference has a good chance of not being part of the future admissions landscape. For many, the practice of giving preference to relatives of alumni and donors is a vestigial trace of an outdated higher education system. Legacy preference is overwhelmingly not supported by the American public, with a 2022 Pew Research Center survey finding 75 percent of those surveyed reporting that legacy status should not be a factor in college admissions. It will be interesting to see which institutions follow Wesleyen’s lead and how this trend away from legacy preference affects the level of donations at legacy-blind institutions. 

Wesleyan University Ends Legacy Admissions (NY Times) – 7/19/23

Will Admissions Policy Changes Extend to K-12 Schools?


There is some question whether the Supreme Court’s affirmative action ban will apply beyond higher education institutions, to elite K-12 schools as well. Certain conservative-leaning law firms and policy networks are taking these schools to task on what the groups consider racially discriminatory admissions policies against a number of White and Asian-American students. K-12 leaders, on the other hand, argue that there is legal backing for admissions policies that consider socioeconomic status. Additionally, they cite the ever present “pernicious” history of racial segregation and the fact that there is still great need to address racial inequities.


Some are interpreting an excerpt from Chief Justice Roberts’ majority opinion, “What cannot be done directly cannot be done indirectly,” as an intention to enforce race-blind criteria beyond the scope of undergraduate admissions. We shall see how far the court aims to extend their influence over this issue. In the meantime, proponents of racial diversity programs have valid cause for concern.

After Harvard Ruling, Will Admissions Policies at Elite K-12 Schools Be Next? (Yahoo News) – 7/18/23

A High-Touch Admissions Model That Promotes Diversity


The Olin College of Engineering, a small, selective institution in Needham, Massachusetts, may be well-positioned to navigate the uncertainty brought on by the Supreme Court’s affirmative action ban. Olin College is one of the state’s most selective schools, boasting an 18% acceptance rate. The sample size is small, however: Olin has just under 360 undergraduates and receives approximately 1,000 applications per year. Prior to the court’s ban, Olin’s admissions team was already taking a thorough and individualized approach to recruiting students, prioritizing making personal connections with candidates and giving the admissions department “an advantage in understanding the totality of their experience to a greater degree,” according to Director of Admissions Susan Hartley Brisson. This high-touch approach will not change drastically in a post affirmative action world.


Olin College of Engineering has steadily (and significantly) increased the diversity of their campus in the years since 2010. For example, in 2010 the percentage of Black and Latino students made up 4 percent of the schools’ overall population. As of 2020, Black and Latino students account for 13.5 percent of the student body. Although there is still, of course, room to grow into an even more inclusive environment, especially as it pertains to first-generation college students, Olin’s team plans to institute targeted admissions based on geography to mitigate diversity loss from the court-imposed restrictions. While most larger name institutions don’t have the same luxury as Olin to facilitate such high-touch admissions models, Olin’s approach can serve as a lodestar for colleges and universities looking for an effective way to process admissions while promoting diversity. Furthermore, Olin College’s model is a prime example of how lesser-known universities can be a great fit for many students, providing, in some cases, an equally selective option while offering resources and support that more well-known institutions are incapable of matching.

After affirmative action ban, one small Massachusetts college plots a course to maintain racial diversity (WBUR) – 7/17/23

Correlation Between Selectivity & Race/Ethnicity Considerations


The Supreme Court decision on affirmative action will likely have the largest impact on a small group of highly selective private colleges and universities, according to a Pew Research Center study. The study examined 123 selective colleges and universities (defined as admitting 50 percent or fewer of their applicants) disclosures on whether they consider race and ethnicity as a factor in deciding who to admit. Of those studied, 74 percent (91 schools) considered race/ethnicity a factor, with 10 schools describing it an important factor. 82 of the 91 schools are private, not-for-profit institutions. 26 percent (32 schools) reported that they do not consider race/ethnicity as a factor. 22 of the 32 schools are public institutions.


Consideration of race and ethnicity was found to be more common for institutions for private colleges and universities – and for those with a less diverse student body. There was found to be a direct correlation between consideration of race/ethnicity and selectivity. In analyzing the publicly-available data, the center found that all 24 schools that admit 10 percent or fewer applicants consider race/ethnicity as an admissions factor, in contrast with 41 of 48 schools that admit between 10 percent and 30 percent of applicants and 25 out of 51 schools that admit between 30 percent and 50 percent of their applicants.

Private, selective colleges are most likely to use race, ethnicity as a factor in admissions decisions (Pew Research Center) – 7/14/23

Stanford Study: AI Detectors Erroneously Flag Essays by Non-Native Speakers


Systems designed to detect AI-generated writing are flagging essays written by non-native English speakers as being generated by chatbots. Researchers from Stanford University used seven popular GPT detectors to evaluate 100 essays written by non-native English speakers, as well as essays by eighth-grade native English speakers as a control. Over 50 percent of the essays written by non-native English speakers were flagged as AI-generated; one system flagged nearly 98 percent of those essays as not generated by humans. On the other hand, only about 20 percent of the control essays were flagged.


The findings discussed here are another example of two of the major pitfalls of AI technology in its current form: a lack of credibility and the presence of systemic bias. Students have been falsely accused of chatbot generated content, with professors going so far as threatening to fail entire classes based on faulty evidence. AI detectors have even flagged sections of the US Constitution as bot-generated. Suffice it to say, AI-detecting tools are far from being a panacea and need further development before they can be adapted as reliable tools.

An AI detector mislabeled nearly every essay written by a non-native English speaker as being written by a bot (Business Insider) – 7/13/23

Universities Report Admitting Legacy Students Below Academic Standards


Although admissions officers generally report that their legacy applicants (relatives of alumni and/or donors) meet the required academic qualifications for acceptance, three private universities in California – Pepperdine University, the University of Southern California, and Vanguard University – have admitted that some legacy students in recent years have not met these minimum requirements. Pepperdine has admitted eight legacy students over four years, USC admitted fewer than ten legacy students in each of the last two admissions cycles, and Vanguard admitted fewer than ten legacy students in three of the last four admissions cycles. All other private California colleges reported, in compliance with a new state law, that they did not admit anyone who failed to meet the baseline academic requirements.


Legacy admissions is currently under intense scrutiny, especially after the affirmative action ban in college admissions: Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson discussed legacy admissions in her dissent to the Court’s decision; progressive politicians are working up to shift the conversation to the inequity of legacy admissions; recently, a group of Boston activists filed a formal complaint against Harvard University for their legacy practices. Protests notwithstanding, the preference for legacy runs deep at some institutions, even those that do not admit legacy candidates below minimum academic requirements. At Stanford, for example, fifteen percent of undergraduates are legacy students.

Not All Legacies Meet Admissions Standards (Inside Higher Ed) – 7/12/23

Exploring the Shifting College Admissions Landscape


In the wake of the affirmative action decision, correspondents from the New York Times education department answer students’ and stakeholders’ questions about the evolving process. Some key takeaways are below:

  • One extracurricular activity or award is not likely to help sway a student’s admission into a top-20 school. Exhibiting long-term passion and sustained dedication in something beyond academics, on the other hand, is something colleges most definitely look for.
  • As more women apply to college, there have been reports that suggest male students are more likely to get admitted to top colleges. There is some evidence to support these findings, but it varies from school to school and admissions offices will likely not corroborate such claims.
  • Admissions lotteries, a randomized selection of qualified students, could be part of the future of some institutions’ approaches. Although this system may sound unfair, it does eliminate some of the subjective bias in the process.


The college admissions process is an opaque one, with schools keeping many of their metrics and intentions close to the chest. With institutions going test optional, race-conscious admissions being banned, and personal statements taking on greater import, the landscape is increasingly becoming less easy to navigate. Closely following the information that is released by colleges and universities as they adjust to the new admissions norm will be key in ensuring students are as empowered as possible through the process.What to Know About College Admissions Now That Affirmative Action Is Gone (NY Times) – 7/8/23

Written by

Zachary Adler
Author Image Since 2010, Zach has been helping students achieve their college readiness goals, specializing in all sections of the SAT, ACT, PSAT, and SHSAT. Prior to joining Onsen, Zach worked for a global investment firm, as well as in various roles in the education space. He has served as a youth mentor and has run college readiness information sessions for students in under-resourced communities. Additionally, Zach is a writer and filmmaker. He is an International Baccalaureate scholar and a graduate of Boston University.

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