Harvard Economics professor Raj Chetty ’00 discussed the role that privilege and wealth play in elite college admissions at a Harvard Graduate School of Education event Tuesday afternoon.
Admissions officials, undergraduates, and College staff flooded Longfellow Hall to hear Chetty present research from his latest paper, which was released in July through Opportunity Insights, a group of economists led by Chetty. The talk — which was hosted by the Askwith Education Forum and Harvard’s Partnering in Education Research Fellowship Program — drew more than 150 attendees, including Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana and Dean of Students Thomas Dunne.
Following Chetty’s presentation, Thomas Kane — an HGSE professor and the director of the Center for Education Policy Research — moderated a panel discussion between Chetty, professor of education Susan M. Dynarski ’86, and Dean of Social Science Lawrence D. Bobo.
Chetty’s research found that applicants from high-income families were more likely to attend “Ivy-Plus colleges,” which include Stanford University, MIT, Duke University, and the University of Chicago, as well as Ivy League institutions.
Chetty’s research also suggested that the SAT is a better predictor than GPA for future success — defined as attaining membership in the top 1 percent of the income distribution — than other factors in the admissions process. Still, many colleges have opted to sustain pandemic-era test-optional policies.
Amid widespread attention to legacy preferences in the admissions process, Chetty revealed that the advantage given to children of alumni is not uniform across the board. Chetty’s paper found that legacy students from families in the top 1 percent are five times more likely to be admitted than applicants with similar test scores. Chetty also noted that recruited athletes are more likely to hail from high-income families.
“One wonders, in light of the charts I showed you, are institutions like Harvard and other peer institutions taking kids from high-income families, privileged backgrounds, and essentially channeling them in the next generation to positions of influence?” Chetty asked.
While removing legacy preferences, “equalizing athlete shares by income,” and “contextualizing nonacademic credentials” preferences for recruited athletes would create more spots for students from low-income families, Chetty also said his analysis shows that need-affirmative policies would create the same outcome.
“It would be equivalent to the impact that you could have if you did something different — another policy proposal, one we could think about — which is directly putting need-affirmative preferences, taking kids from lower-income families and directly giving them an advantage in the admissions process,” Chetty said.
During the panel discussion, Dynarski said she believes the University has a “moral imperative” to expand its incoming class sizes to increase access.
“Harvard is pretty much the same size as it was in 1920,” she said. “So yes, the institutions need to grow. That would be a very easy way to increase representation.”
Chetty said during the panel discussion that universities could make progress by “putting a thumb on the scale” for students who have “overcome adversity from particular backgrounds” in “data-driven ways,” like consulting data on the neighborhoods students grew up in.
Dynarski sharply criticized legacy admissions policies during the panel.
“We don’t have to have a quota to make sure we have lots of legacy kids running around,” she said. “Just let in the ones who are most qualified. Don’t let in the ones who are not.”
Dynarski also reflected on her work to recruit applicants from underrepresented groups to pursue a college education.
“The surprise of this work was that it didn’t matter. Because it wasn’t that they weren’t applying to the institutions. It’s that the institutions were not admitting them,” Dynarski said. “And the reason why the Ivies don’t have low-income and middle-income students is because the Ivies don’t want low-income students.”
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