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Access to Top Universities Linked to Family Background, Not Just Achievement

As much as we'd like to think the college-admissions process takes place on a level playing field, new research suggests it does not. Access to top universities in the United States, England, and Australia has a lot to do with family background and money, it finds, not just the academic ability of applicants.

In the United States, children from professional families are 3.3 times more likely to go to leading public universities than those from working-class households—and 40 percent of the gap cannot be explained by differences in academic achievement, according to a research report recently released by the Sutton Trust, an independent British think tank. At elite, private universities here, where students from professional families are 6.4 times more likely to enroll than those from working-class backgrounds, 52 percent of the difference cannot be explained by academic achievement.

The report considers the father's occupation when determining if a child is from a professional household (doctor, lawyers, teachers) or working-class family (carpenter, waiter, laborer). The apparent admission advantage could be linked to the father's higher income, advanced education, or connections, according to Sutton Trust officials.

The findings were similiar for children in England and Australia, although the gaps were slightly more pronounced in the United States.

"Although academic achievement is an important factor, a substantial proportion of the elite university access gap in each country remains unexplained. This suggests that there are working-class children who, even though they have the grades to attend, choose to enter a non-selective institution instead," said the report's author, John Jerrim of the Institute of Education at the Univeristy of London, in a press release. The new research confirms that, internationally, many able children either are not applying or are not being admitted to the best universities.

The report suggests that cost-effective interventions targeting students between the ages of 14 and 18 may play an important role in reducing socioeconomic inequalities in elite university access in the future.

The report dovetails with research from Caroline Hoxby of Stanford University that found many qualified, low-income students did not apply to the most selective schools, a practice that results in what is called "undermatching." Hoxby noted students were unaware of the financial-aid packages at high-end universities that can make them more affordable. She discovered a simple intervention of sending information packets about the college process to low-income students can increase the likelihood they will apply to a reach school.
Although price increases for higher education in the United States are slowing, the published price of tuition and fees for in-state students at public four-year colleges this year was $8,893 compared with $30,094 at private, nonprofit colleges, according to the College Board's latest trends report.
The Sutton Trust research was presented at a summit Nov. 15-16 in London where 80 academics and university admissions leaders, including heads of admissions at Harvard University, Yale University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, discussed ways to improve access for low- and middle-income students to elite universities. Recommendations from the gathering are expected to be released in a report early next year.
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