Study finds middle, low-income students underrepresented at elite colleges

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A working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests the removal of SAT and ACT scores as a factor in college admissions, which could reduce income segregation in colleges and increase intergenerational income mobility.

The paper, published in February, revealed that high-income students are more likely than middle and lower-income students to attend elite schools, even when students received the same test scores, according to a summary published by Opportunity Insights, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization based at Harvard University.

While UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ announced her support for the elimination of SAT and ACT scores in admission consideration in November 2019, the UC Academic Council’s Standardized Testing Task Force published a report finding the usage of the tests to be helpful in predicting students’ academic success in areas such as undergraduate GPA Feb. 3.

“Right now, the UC is still talking about it as a policy issue,” said Amanda Savage, an attorney with the Opportunity Under Law project at Public Counsel. “We see it as a legal issue.”

The Opportunity Under Law project is a program with Public Counsel that seeks to correct economic injustice through litigation.

The paper also found that while middle-income students are underrepresented at selective private schools relative to other students with the same test scores, students from the lowest income bracket are not, according to the summary. The study attributes this to the scarcity of low-income students who score high enough on the SAT and ACT to be admitted into elite colleges.

If low-income students were given admissions preference comparable to legacy admissions preference at elite private schools, the number of low-income students would be similar at all colleges, according to the summary. The study suggests a 160-point boost to the SAT scores of low-income students would close the gap.

The study also found that greater representation for low and middle-income students would increase intergenerational income mobility.

In October 2019, Public Counsel, along with four other firms and nonprofits, sent a letter to the UC Board of Regents urging the discontinuation of the usage of SAT and ACT tests as a factor in admissions.

“The issue here isn’t whether it can be done, but does the UC system have the will to do it,” Savage said.

Savage said college admissions, including that of the UC system, reflect the inequality seen in society.

The UC Board of Regents did not comment as of press time.

“Underrepresented students shouldn’t have to wait nine more years for the UC to be a level playing field,” Savage said.

Contact Blake Evans at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @Blake_J_Evans.