The nation’s most selective colleges and universities should give special preference in the admissions process to qualified students from low-income families, who are vastly less likely to attend those schools than wealthier Americans with similar academic ability, according to a new report.

The report, by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, proposes ways to ensure that low-income students have access to top colleges and universities, where they are now underrepresented thanks to policies it said stacks the deck against them. (The foundation is among the funders of The Hechinger Report, which produced this story.)

These include preferences for athletes, children of alumni, and applicants whose families have the greatest ability to pay, who often receive financial aid based not on need but on what the universities call merit.

The system “is profoundly unfair to top students from low-income families,” who are less likely than lower-scoring counterparts from wealthier families to go to the most selective colleges and universities, the report said. “In essence, colleges are making the mercantile decision to live off the backs of less talented students while sacrificing the more talented poor.”

The report defined selective institutions as those that receive more applicants than they accept, and whose students have high levels of academic preparation. It combined the “most competitive” and “highly competitive” classifications of Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges.

Seventy-two percent of students in the most competitive institutions come from the wealthiest one-quarter of families, the report said, while only three percent come from families in the bottom socioeconomic quarter.

“Hidden within these numbers are thousands of students from economically disadvantaged households who, despite attending less-resourced schools and growing up with less intellectual stimulation and advantages, do extremely well in school, love learning, are extraordinarily bright and capable, and would do very well at selective institutions if offered admissions,” it said. “They are just being ignored.”

A separate analysis of federal data by the Hechinger Report has shown that this divide is getting wider.

Among the reasons: Low-income students are less likely to apply to the best colleges, thinking they cannot get in or won’t be able to afford tuition. But the report said they also get inadequate consideration in the admissions and financial-aid process.

While coaches lobby for athletes and trustees advocate for the children of potential donors, it said, there is no one to stand up for low-income students.

Legacy applicants, for example, or children of alumni, have much higher odds of acceptance than other students, the report said. Harvard, it said, admits 30 percent of them, for instance—four times the rate at which it accepts non-legacy applicants.

The report called for eliminating legacy preferences, providing more outreach to, and financial aid for, low-income students, and redefining “merit” to include the achievement of overcoming a low-income background and succeeding academically.

“Such an approach would recognize that to overcome the burdens of poverty and nonetheless perform at a high level is itself an indicator of ability and perseverance,” the report said.

“True merit, properly understood, recognizes both scholastic achievement and the importance of the distance traveled from a low-income high school to an elite college or university.”

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Jon Marcus

Jon Marcus is a higher education editor at the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.