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Understanding College Admissions Policies

Understanding College Admissions Policies

Which of the following groups enjoys the greatest undergraduate admission advantage?

  1. Minority students
  2. Middle-income students
  3. Upper-class students

If you picked choice number three, then you are correct! The admission process heavily favors affluent students. Keep reading to learn 10 reasons why.

1. Demonstrated Interest

New research concluded that demonstrated interest has become a way for high-income students to gain an admission edge. Many schools want applicants to demonstrate that they are genuinely interested in their institutions.

A survey from the National Association for College Admission Counseling indicates that 50% of schools consider demonstrated interest as having considerable or moderate importance in the admission process. A few ways to show that you care are:

  • Visiting a campus
  • Requesting marketing materials
  • Talking to an admission representative at a college fair
  • Following a college or university on social media

While some methods of expressing interest cost nothing, the researchers concluded that highly selective schools are more likely to put the most stock in campus visits, which can be pricey.

According to the researchers, teenagers who apply to and visit highly selective schools are up to 40% more likely to be admitted than comparable students who can’t afford to visit the college. Some of the most selective schools offer college fly-in programs to help low-income students visit their campuses, but most do not.

2. High School Grades

Colleges and universities heavily depend on grades when deciding who gets in and who gets rejected. A study suggests that grade point average increased significantly during the past two decades from 3.27 to 3.38.

The good news for wealthier students is their GPAs increased the most. The average GPA at the schools with the highest grade inflation was 3.56. In contrast, minority students primarily attended schools with the lowest average GPA of 3.14.

3. Legacy Students

Elite colleges and universities began giving preferential treatment to children of alumni in the early 20th century when these institutions raised their admission standards, which included the launch of the SAT.

Then, children of immigrants began outperforming some rich students, who were previously shoe-ins for admission. In reaction, the institutions began reserving a large number of spots to the children of these wealthy families.

Legacy practices remain at the majority of institutions and almost every private liberal arts college, according to a new book entitled, Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class is Leaving Everyone in the Dust, Why That is a Problem and What To Do About It.

“Legacy admissions are an embarrassment for a nation that prides itself on being a meritocracy,” wrote Richard V. Reeves, the book’s author and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

4. Need-Aware Admissions Policies

The vast majority of private American colleges are need-aware. Like schools with need-blind admissions policies, they start accepting students without regard to their financial ability to pay. But after accepting a certain number of applicants, the admissions process becomes need-sensitive. High-income students are then more likely to be admitted, even if they aren’t as qualified as applicants who need financial help.

A dramatic example of this common practice landed on the front page of The New York Times in 2009 when the country was still grappling with the recession. Faced with more financial need than usual, the financial aid office at Reed College looked at the list of accepted students (who were not notified yet).

They told the admission office to take more than 100 students off the acceptance list and replace them wealthy, full-pay students. The article prompted an outcry from readers, but what they didn’t realize is that need-aware practices are commonplace.

5. Test-Optional Policies

Schools that announce they are making ACT/SAT test scores optional inevitably offer a noble reason for the policy change. These test scores are highly correlated with income, which puts low and middle-income teenagers at a disadvantage. High-income students can afford test prep courses, which can improve their test scores.

Without the test score requirement, low-income students have a greater chance at admission. But a 2014 study suggested that minority and low-income students did not see any more admission gains at test-optional colleges compared to those that still require tests.

A test-optional policy now allows schools to accept high-income students who have done poorly on the standardized tests without hurting the institutions’ U.S. News & World Report rank. Only students with very good test scores report them to test-optional colleges, increasing the average test score reported to college ranking organizations.

6. Merit Scholarship War

Both private and public schools are aggressively pursuing affluent students with merit scholarships. With traditionally favored candidates (affluent teens with impressive profiles) dwindling, schools are competing against each other for these students by offering merit awards.

A New America study entitled The Out-of-State Student Arms Race documents the competition for these students among public universities. Universities are recruiting these students for three major reasons:

  1. Students with higher test scores and grade point averages can boost an institution’s U.S. News & World Report’s ranking
  2. Even after receiving merit scholarships, these students bring more revenue than state residents
  3. Schools have to sweeten the pot to lock in these sought-after applicants

The study showed that when schools devote more money for merit scholarships, the amount of aid for low-income students declines. The most selective colleges and universities enroll a smaller percentage of Federal Pell Grant recipients than other colleges. The use of institutional merit grants has grown and now exceeds institutional need-based grant funding at many schools.

7. Race-Based Affirmative Action

At many selective private schools, minority students enjoy an admission advantage. But the students who do win the education lottery and gain admission are usually not low-income students. 86% of black students at selective colleges are middle- or upper-class, according to a Jack Kent Cooke Foundation report.

8. Early Decision Admissions

It’s easier to get into elite colleges and universities if you apply for early decision. Students who apply early decision promise that they will attend if admitted, regardless of financial aid. This isn’t a promise that low-income students can typically make.

Low-income students need to shop around for the lowest net price. According to an analysis by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, high-achieving and low-income students are half as likely to apply early than wealthy applicants.

9. Private College Consultants

The application process can be scary, especially for low-income students who are the first in their families to go to a college or university. Unlike affluent families, low-income parents can’t hire consultants to help.

10. Tax Breaks

Investing in a 529 college savings plan is a great way to save money. It’s also expensive for the federal government and most states because these plans provide generous tax perks that are beneficial for affluent parents. According to federal statistics, 70% of individuals capturing 529 tax benefits had a household income of more than $200,000.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is a best-selling author, speaker and journalist. Her book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, is available on

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