Leadership positions in the United States are held disproportionately by graduates of a group of 12 highly selective, private “Ivy-Plus” colleges—the eight colleges in the Ivy League, the University of Chicago, Duke, MIT, and Stanford. Less than one percent of Americans attend these 12 colleges, yet they account for 15% of those in the top 0.1% of the income distribution, a quarter of U.S. Senators, half of all Rhodes scholars, and three-fourths of Supreme Court justices appointed in the last half-century (Figure 1).
Furthermore, the students who attend Ivy-Plus institutions disproportionately come from high-income backgrounds themselves: just 10% of students scoring at the 99th percentile on the SAT/ACT from middle-class families attend an Ivy-Plus college, compared with 40% of similarly high-scoring students from families in the top 1 percent of the income distribution (Figure 2).
These two facts motivate our central question: Do highly selective colleges perpetuate privilege across generations and, conversely, could these colleges diversify America’s leaders by changing their admissions policies?
We answer this question using a “big data” approach—combining anonymized admissions data from several private and public colleges linked to parents’ and students’ income tax records and students’ SAT/ACT scores. We find that certain admissions practices at Ivy-Plus colleges—legacy preferences, weight placed on nonacademic factors, and athletic recruitment—give children from high-income families an advantage in admissions. Furthermore, being admitted to an Ivy-Plus college dramatically changes children’s life trajectories, giving them much greater chances of reaching positions of leadership. Together, these results imply that Ivy-Plus colleges could significantly increase the socioeconomic diversity of America’s leaders by changing their admissions practices.
• Ivy-Plus colleges are more than twice as likely to admit a student from a high-income family as compared to low- or middle-income families with comparable SAT/ACT scores.
• Higher admission rates for students from high-income families can be attributed to three factors: preferences for children of alumni (legacies), higher non-academic ratings, and athletic recruitment.
• The three factors underlying the high-income admissions advantage are not associated with better post-college outcomes; in contrast, SAT/ACT scores and academic ratings are highly predictive of post-college success.
• Attending an Ivy-Plus instead of a flagship public college triples students’ chances of obtaining jobs at prestigious firms and substantially increases their chances of earning in the top 1%.
• By changing their admissions policies, Ivy-Plus colleges could significantly diversify the socioeconomic backgrounds of America’s highest earners and leaders.