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Effects of Social Class on College Admissions


There’s no denying the fact that social class and family income have a non-zero effect on college admissions. We’ve heard and read numerous studies that aim to balance the effects of various non-academic factors. We’ve heard studies that students who take the SAT more than once, on average, will see an increase of at least 100 points. Logically, this statistic favors students who are fortunate enough to be in financially stable environments that allow them to take the time to study for and retake the (still important) standardized test.


Recently, we’ve also heard the news about how the University of California system is doing away with the SAT and ACT altogether (although rumblings suggest that it will create its own standardized test, which is a can of worms for a different time; we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it). In any case, the legal settlement revolves around the idea that standardized tests are biased in terms of race, wealth, and disability.


Similarly, more than 50% of colleges in the United States announced that the SAT and ACT are optional for applicants this fall. However, with so much focus on the tests themselves, we should remember the effects of our social class on college admissions.


First off is the essay. For many colleges, this ranks as equally important or next important after GPA, academic rigor, and standardized test scores. However, essays are oftentimes polished by peers, parents, and friends, and statistically speaking, if you aren’t getting help, you could find yourself behind the curve when it comes to your essay quality.


In a very interesting study that involves an education Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University, over 220,000 essays sent to the UCs in 2016 were analyzed by software, which found that essays that contained a higher number of punctuation marks and longer words were correlated with students from families with higher household incomes.

Analyzing essay prompts and utilizing human readings and statistical analyses of 220,062 essays contributed by 55,016 applicants to a public US university system, we find circumscribed genre expectations and class-correlated patterns of self-presentation but also substantial range in what the university and its applicants invoke as evidence to support competitive bids for admission.

Furthermore, these students wrote essays that were more “thematically abstract,” which includes topics such as human psychology, philosophy, and descriptive writing.


However, as colleges continue to remind us about holistic admissions, we also need to recognize that a higher level of liberty in terms of discretion for admissions offices may result in situations like this: high-scoring Asian students are penalized because of “character or fit.”

To avoid adopting a blatant quota system, Harvard introduced subjective criteria like character, personality and promise. The plaintiffs call this the “original sin of holistic admissions.”
They argue that the same character-based system is being used now to hold the proportion of Asian-Americans at Harvard to roughly 20 percent year after year, except for minor increases, they say, spurred by litigation.

Sure, colleges are synonymous with social education and progress, but the vast majority of them are still for-profit institutions, meaning they have revenue targets; financial woes have even led to several colleges closing permanently, as in the case of the renowned Mills College. Plus, keeping a high ranking can be very profitable as it allows for schools to raise tuition:

Traditional economics would suggest that raising the price of an item (such as a college education) would reduce demand for it. But instead this study found that raising tuition — as well as instructional expenditures — actually improves the demand to attend liberal arts schools and schools in the bottom half of the top 50. For example, for liberal arts colleges ranked 26th to 50th, a $1,000 increase in tuition and fees was associated with a 12.9-point increase in SAT scores and a 3.5 percent increase in the proportion of top freshmen admitted.
This is because such costs “serve as markers of institutional quality and prestige,” the authors write.

On top of all this, studies show that richer, whiter high schools receive more college visits, and in combination with legacy admissions, social mobility may still have some roadblocks in its way. Don’t forget that some elite colleges have more students from the top 1% than students from the bottom 40%.


All this suggests that a shift away from standardized testing can easily open the path to other factors that admissions offices will lean more heavily on, including ambiguous and vague ones such as “character or fit,” easily twisted to explain why a high-scoring student is not offered admissions.

Reliance on soft factors can allow college admissions offices to pursue their goals but deflect questions about which of the goals they prioritize.

Remove one admissions factor, and you will need to replace it with a new one or increase the weight of the other remaining factors, which include extracurriculars that may also favor wealthier families. The trend of holistic admissions is not without its drawbacks, but overall, the fact remains that it is extremely difficult if not simply impossible to separate socioeconomic indicators from applications. Your social class absolutely has an impact on college admissions.

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