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SAT boost for low-income students could improve economic diversity

Brown Economics Professor John Friedman co-authors paper on campus income segregation

A new paper authored by a team of well-known economists, including University Professor of Economics and International and Public Affairs John Friedman, suggests that to improve economic diversity on college campuses, it may be time to give low-income students a boost.

Friedman and his peers aimed to understand why in earlier research they found that “children from low-income families were much less likely to attend selective schools than children from high-income families,” he told The Herald. The paper also notes the “missing middle” class on campus: While plenty of middle-class students score highly on the SAT, a slimmer proportion make it to selective or “Ivy-plus” schools.

The study concludes that universities could increase socioeconomic diversity in higher education if they admitted the same percentage of students from the lowest income bracket as the percentage of students who come from a higher income bracket and score 160 points higher on the SAT, and awarded similar but smaller bonuses for students from middle income levels.

Currently, schools face two problems, Friedman said. Students from the highest income bracket who score well on the SAT are admitted disproportionately over lower-income students who received the same score, according to the paper. But even if schools admitted a proportional number of qualified students from each income bracket, higher-income students would still be overrepresented on selective campuses.

“There are more high-income students with high test scores than there are low-income students” with similarly high test scores, Friedman said.

If colleges — especially schools like Brown — want to match the economic demographics of their campus to the entire college-going population, Friedman said, they need to put in the extra effort.

“Ivy-plus schools are picking from the very top of the academic preparation distribution,” Friedman said. “There just aren’t that many students from low-income families in that part of the distribution.” The paper attributes the discrepancy in the scores of low- and higher-income students to “disparities in schools, neighborhoods and other environmental factors.”

To close this gap, the paper makes a simple suggestion: If low-income students attended schools at the rate that higher-income students with SAT scores roughly 160 points higher do, the proportion of low-income students on selective campuses would match the percentage of low-income students who attend college.

A change like this would mean that the “student population at Brown would look the same as the population at (the University of Rhode Island), as at (Community College of Rhode Island),” campuses which are economically more diverse than the University, Friedman said.

“We tried to understand, ‘how large is 160 points?’” Friedman said. He and his peers also questioned whether or not there was a precedent for giving any student a boost of that “magnitude” in current admissions proceedings. 

Friedman argued that schools have long given out a similar boost, but to different groups. Previous studies have shown that the 160-point boost is roughly equivalent to the boost received by favored groups in the college admissions process, Friedman explained. These groups include underrepresented minorities, recruited athletes and legacy students.

Making campuses economically representative of the college-going population could have a “meaningful impact on upward mobility” in the United States, he said.

“We find this type of thing would close about a quarter of the intergenerational mobility gaps as a whole for college students,” he added.

Independent college counselor Sara Harberson said that the challenge with admitting a more economically diverse cohort of students doesn’t stem from the selection process.

“It’s a recruitment issue. You need to have these low- and middle-income students in the applicant pool to be able to admit them,” she said.

To get those students into the pool, Harberson said college admissions officers need to focus less on private high schools and well-performing public suburban high schools and more on the schools and neighborhoods where there is a higher concentration of low-income applicants.

“Admissions officers were buddy-buddy with college counselors at private high schools for decades,” she said. “The amount of time that was invested in those relationships needs to shift to those (high school) counselors who are really desperate for information and education about what Ivy-plus institutions expect.”

Harberson added that the data the paper relied upon was from the early 1980s, and the 160-point “legacy boost” may not actually be equivalent to the advantages legacy students currently receive in the process today. Rather, she believes that the boost is most likely lower than what previous research has implied.

“Being a legacy applicant is not what it used to be,” she said. “I don’t believe 160 points is the edge at this point in 2020. I think an admissions office will have a big target on their back if they do that on a regular basis.”

Dana Goldstein ’06, a national correspondent who covers education for the New York Times, wrote about the paper in February. Goldstein said that while schools may be taking too many “safe bets” and “not taking risks” in the admissions process, implementation of what the paper suggests could present a challenge.

“You have to get people to apply to Ivy-plus schools that aren’t already applying. Then you have to offer them financial aid, or someone has to foot the bill,” she said. “All of this requires money and policy commitments.”

Goldstein also said that some experts she has spoken to said they felt the paper was “too speculative” — and that more information on the costs and the trade-offs would have added value to the paper.

But Friedman made clear that the paper doesn’t suggest specifically implementing a boost for low-income students as policy. Instead, Friedman said, schools need to look at their own demographics to find appropriate solutions.

“We do not propose a specific plan on how to get there,” he said. “But knowing how far away your destination is is a useful point in figuring out how you want to get there.”


Will Kubzansky

Will Kubzansky is the 133rd editor-in-chief and president of the Brown Daily Herald. Previously, he served as a University News editor overseeing the admission & financial aid and staff & student labor beats. In his free time, he plays the guitar and soccer — both poorly.

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