Matt's Past SAT/ACT News Update

Matt O'Connor

Aug 02, 2023

A new study utilizing an unprecedented dataset has determined that students from affluent families have significantly greater admission rates to elite universities than other applicants, even when SAT/ACT scores are the same. The New York Times has details regarding the study, and reactions.


Elite colleges have long been filled with the children of the richest families: At Ivy League schools, one in six students has parents in the top 1 percent.

A large new study, released Monday, shows that it has not been because these children had more impressive grades on average or took harder classes. They tended to have higher SAT scores and finely honed résumés, and applied at a higher rate — but they were overrepresented even after accounting for those things. For applicants with the same SAT or ACT score, children from families in the top 1 percent were 34 percent more likely to be admitted than the average applicant, and those from the top 0.1 percent were more than twice as likely to get in.

Data is from at least three of the dozen top colleges where the researchers had access to detailed admissions records.

The study — by Opportunity Insights, a group of economists based at Harvard who study inequality — quantifies for the first time the extent to which being very rich is its own qualification in selective college admissions.

The analysis is based on federal records of college attendance and parental income taxes for nearly all college students from 1999 to 2015, and standardized test scores from 2001 to 2015. It focuses on the eight Ivy League universities, as well as Stanford, Duke, M.I.T. and the University of Chicago. It adds an extraordinary new data set: the detailed, anonymized internal admissions assessments of at least three of the 12 colleges, covering half a million applicants. (The researchers did not name the colleges that shared data or specify how many did because they promised them anonymity.)

The new data shows that among students with the same test scores, the colleges gave preference to the children of alumni and to recruited athletes, and gave children from private schools higher nonacademic ratings. The result is the clearest picture yet of how America’s elite colleges perpetuate the intergenerational transfer of wealth and opportunity.

“What I conclude from this study is the Ivy League doesn’t have low-income students because it doesn’t want low-income students,” said Susan Dynarski, an economist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who has reviewed the data and was not involved in the study.

The advantage to rich applicants varied by college, the study found: At Dartmouth, students from the top 0.1 percent were five times as likely to attend as the average applicant with the same test score, while at M.I.T. they were no more likely to attend. (The fact that children from higher-income families tend to have higher standardized test scores and are likelier to receive private coaching suggests that the study may actually underestimate their admissions advantage.)

The researchers could see, for nearly all college students in the United States from 1999 to 2015, where they applied and attended, their SAT or ACT scores and whether they received a Pell grant for low-income students. They could also see their parents’ income tax records, which enabled them to analyze attendance by earnings in more detail than any previous research. They conducted the analysis using anonymized data.

There was a third factor driving the preference for the richest applicants. The colleges in the study generally give applicants numerical scores for academic achievement and for more subjective nonacademic virtues, like extracurricular activities, volunteering and personality traits. Students from the top 1 percent with the same test scores did not have higher academic ratings. But they had significantly higher nonacademic ratings.

Author and Journalist Jeffrey Selingo offers his views on "How Elite Colleges Will Work Around the Supreme Court’s Ruling" regarding race-based affirmative action.


The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision ending the consideration of race as a factor in admissions will have one immediate impact: The constant tracking and massaging of the number of minority applicants will become a relic of the past. Though colleges will still report their enrollment by race and ethnicity to the U.S. Department of Education, they will be flying blind during the selection process in terms of how exactly their next class is coming together when it comes to the makeup of underrepresented students.

Opponents of affirmative action in admissions believe its demise will make for a selection process based more on merit—and ultimately fairer. What’s likelier is that admissions at top-ranked schools will become even more ambiguous and opaque than in recent years. Judging by the statements that colleges released in the hours after the Supreme Court decision, they still plan to enroll a diverse student body. The question now is how they design an evaluative process in which race can’t matter, at least explicitly.

The first workaround colleges will employ is to widen their recruitment funnel, trying to increase the number of minority students who apply. The hope is that further on in the process they will then be able to send out enough admits and get enough yeses that they can enroll a diverse class without ever considering race.

Given that most selective colleges got rid of their requirements for SAT and ACT scores during the pandemic—and then saw their application numbers skyrocket, especially from first-generation and minority students—such test-optional policies are now bound to become permanent. The lack of a testing requirement signals to students with scores that in previous years were below the college’s average that it’s OK to apply, but it also gives colleges greater freedom in shaping a class without worrying about the impact of lower student test scores on the academic metrics reported to the public and the college rankings. What’s more, when not every admitted student submits a test score, plaintiffs will lack a key piece of evidence they have used in past admissions lawsuits claiming discrimination based on race.

When colleges knew they could use race as a factor in the evaluation process, they spent less effort themselves on filling the top of the recruitment funnel with minority students. Elite colleges, in particular, partly outsourced the job of finding smart low-income and first-generation students by partnering with national organizations like QuestBridge and the Posse Foundation that essentially acted as talent scouts for elite colleges.

Now these colleges will likely adopt the recruiting approaches of well-known public colleges in states that had previously banned racial preferences in admissions, including California, Michigan and Washington. In those states, the public flagships have developed extensive high-school counseling and academic outreach efforts aimed at low-income communities and precollege programs designed for students who are first in their family to go to college.

In the Supreme Court’s majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts offered a clue to how colleges could better understand an applicant’s lived experience. “Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration or otherwise,” he wrote. That sentence sparked plenty of discussion among admissions officers and high school counselors about how the essay or other application prompts might be used to ascertain a student’s race and ethnicity.

Roberts warned colleges not to consider the essay or other questions they might ask on the application to be an end run around the consideration of race. “Universities,” he wrote, “may not simply establish through applicant essays or other means [what] we hold unlawful today.” But elite colleges are unlikely to be deterred. They will figure out new ways to give their incoming classes the shape they want.

Wesleyan University (#18 in National Liberal Arts Colleges) has announced that it will end preferences for legacy applicants.


Wesleyan University, a liberal-arts college, said it would end legacy preference in its admissions practices, after the Supreme Court struck down race-based affirmative action earlier this summer.

The Middletown, Conn., institution joins several other universities forgoing the decades-old practice of giving the children of alumni preferential treatment in the admissions process, which disproportionately benefits students who are wealthy and white. The Supreme Court’s decision striking down the use of affirmative action in college decisions in June eliminated a tool many universities used to diversify their campuses, thrusting legacy preference into the spotlight.

Wesleyan University President Michael S. Roth said in a statement Wednesday that legacy status “has played a negligible role in our admissions process for many years.” But the liberal-arts college, which had a 15.7% acceptance rate for the class of 2027, found it necessary to formally end the practice following the high court’s decision, he said.

“We still value the ongoing relationships that come from multigenerational Wesleyan attendance, but there will be no ‘bump’ in the selection process,” Roth said. “As has been almost always the case for a long time, family members of alumni will be admitted on their own merits.”

Wesleyan, which has around 3,000 full-time undergraduates, will work to diversify its student body in part by recruiting more students from low-income and rural communities, Roth, the president, said Wednesday. He said the institution also remains focused on increasing financial aid.

“Ending preferential legacy admission is the easy part,” Roth said.

CBS reports on students getting ready to take the inaugural administration of the SAT on computer starting next spring.


The SAT will soon make a complete shift from a paper-based exam to a digital one, and the format of the college admissions exam is also changing dramatically.

"Those changes – if students and schools are not careful – will catch them off guard," said Phillip Bates, director of college readiness and college prep content for UWorld, a test prep company headquartered in Coppell.

The nearly century-old test will be taken on a computer or tablet starting in March 2024, and UWorld has been re-working its SAT course to adapt to the shorter, digital version.

The exam will go from three hours to just two.

Students will be able to use a calculator, built directly into the interface, on all the math problems, and gone are the long, multi-paragraph reading prompts.

"There is a section where a student has to look at a bulleted set of notes and answer a question from that," Bates said. "So I think it's more interesting. Maybe that's just because it's new, but it's certainly different and I think it does go along with education today."

The adaptive format means not every student will be taking the same exam.

"So students take a first section and either go to an easier path or a more difficult path," said Jamie Reed, the product marketing manager for college readiness at UWorld. "If they go down the easier path, they're capped out at a certain level [for scoring]."

The Pew Research Center has issued a report that concludes that private, selective colleges have been those most likely to consider race in admissions decisions, and will therefore have to adjust their practices in the wake of the Supreme Court's recent decision.


The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to limit affirmative action in higher education is likely to have the biggest impact on a relatively small group of schools – primarily highly selective private colleges and universities, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis.

While there is no comprehensive list of colleges and universities in the United States that consider race and ethnicity as a factor in admissions decisions, many schools report information about themselves in a standard format called the Common Data Set (CDS) and make it available online. Among the items on the CDS is a list of 19 academic and nonacademic factors that might go into a school’s admissions decisions. Schools can rate each factor as, in descending order of significance, “very important,” “important,” “considered” or “not considered.”

We examined CDS forms from 123 selective colleges and universities – which we defined as those that admit half or fewer of their applicants – to see whether they considered race and ethnicity as a factor in deciding whom to admit, and if so, how significant a factor it was. We only looked at schools that had filled out that portion of the CDS in at least one of the past three academic years.

Of these schools, 74% (91 out of 123) said they did consider race and ethnicity, with 10 of those describing it as an important factor. The vast majority of those schools (82) are private, not-for-profit institutions.

About a quarter of the schools we examined (32, or 26%) said they did not consider race and ethnicity at all. Of those, most (22) are public colleges and universities.

In general, consideration of race and ethnicity is more common among schools with the lowest admission rates.

In the Center’s analysis of selective schools with publicly available CDS data, all 24 schools that admit fewer than 10% of applicants say they consider race and ethnicity when deciding whom to admit, although only one rated it as an important factor. And among the 48 schools that admit between 10% and 30% of applicants, all but seven consider race and ethnicity in admissions, with five rating it as an important factor.

But among the 51 schools that admit between 30% and half of all applicants, just over half (26, or 51%) consider race and ethnicity, and only four call it an important factor. Nearly half of those schools (25, or 49%) say they don’t consider race and ethnicity at all.

Among the colleges in our study group, the average admissions rate is lower among schools that consider race and ethnicity than among those that don’t (21.7% vs. 37.4%).

Also, consideration of race and ethnicity is more common for private colleges and universities, at least among the institutions we studied. All but 10 of the 92 private colleges and universities we examined (89%) considered race and ethnicity in deciding whom to admit, with 10 of those ranking it as an important factor.

But among the 31 public schools, only nine (29%) considered race and ethnicity at all, and none rated it as an important factor.

Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times shares what he feels is "The Real College Admissions Scandal".


I wish the Supreme Court had ruled differently on affirmative action for race, but unfortunately it blocked that path for diversity. My fear is that we will all throw up our hands and sit around blaming the court, rather than actually working to overhaul a disgracefully unequal education system.

In fact, there are still ways to broaden educational opportunity. But they may require us liberals to look in the mirror and acknowledge the role of our own institutions in perpetuating inequality.

Elite universities are bastions of left-of-center ideas, yet advantage four groups that are already privileged: children of graduates, recruited athletes for sports like rowing and fencing, children of faculty members and children of large donors.
So what can be done to expand opportunity, aside from ending preferences for the privileged? Top colleges have taken some steps, including broadening recruitment and reducing costs for families of modest means. Bravo to Wesleyan University for this month becoming one of the latest to abolish legacy preferences, joining Amherst, Johns Hopkins and a few others.

Class-based and geographically based affirmative action is still allowed, and it may be possible to boost kids from low-income or low-education families to compensate in part for the Supreme Court ruling. A 2012 study found that seven out of 10 public universities studied were able to maintain or increase the share of Black and Hispanic students with race-neutral strategies targeting socioeconomic inequality.

More broadly, though, too much of the discussion about equity is focused narrowly on affirmative action at competitive universities.

Top universities are important because they disproportionately propel graduates into the Senate, the Supreme Court and other top jobs, but never forget that it is humble community colleges that transform lives at a far greater scale. While Harvard changed my trajectory, I had childhood friends who would have benefited even more if they could only have attended a career academy or community college and learned a marketable job skill; instead they were lost to factory layoffs, addiction and overdoses.

According to a very rough estimate by Professor Sean Reardon at Stanford University, race-based affirmative action has benefited only about 10,000 to 15,000 students each year who might otherwise not have been admitted at their elite colleges — whereas more than three million Black and Hispanic students were enrolled in community colleges in 2020-21. Like public universities, community colleges are some of America’s greatest engines of opportunity.

In the broadest sense, the real college admissions scandal isn’t even the extra benefit given to privileged kids; it’s that so much talent is never nurtured and a majority of young people don’t get a chance to graduate from college at all. If we’re serious about promoting equality, we can champion early childhood programs: To get more kids in a university, invest in pre-K. We can take on local funding of education, which leads to poor children attending poor schools. We can fight to raise high school graduation rates. As I’ve written, we can learn from states that have gained ground — including Mississippi, once mocked as the nation’s educational caboose and now a place where fourth-graders in poverty are tied for best in the nation in reading.