The short version is that, outside an incredibly tiny slice of hyper-elite schools like Harvard, most universities need tuition dollars in order to make their budgets work (this would include very good schools like Trinity, ranked in the top 50 of U.S. liberal arts colleges). Poorer students, who need scholarship support, represent a loss of tuition dollars -- in effect, schools need to balance our the low-income students they admit with high-income tuition-payers, even in cases where the poorer student is on merit alone a better candidate.
The way this plays out in practice is usually match-ups between high-GPA/low-SAT poorer students versus low-GPA/high-SAT wealthier students, which are repeatedly resolved in favor of the latter. The high standardized test scores are viewed as at least balancing out the low GPA, so it isn't really a case of taking a less-qualified wealthier kid over a scrappier, smarter, but poorer candidate. But often, it turns out, these test scores are themselves an artifact of wealth -- they reflect nothing more than that the student can afford SAT tutors and knows how to "play the game". Once they get to college, they revert back to high school form -- relative underperformers, unmotivated, and not on the level of their peers.
When Angel Pérez arrived at Trinity and took a close look at the way the admissions office had been making its decisions, what he found left him deeply concerned. “We were taking some students who probably should not have been admitted, but we were taking them because they could pay,” he told me. “They went to good high schools, but they were maybe at the bottom of their class. The motivation wasn’t there. So the academic quality of our student body was dropping.”
At Trinity, Pérez’s predecessors had been able to capitalize on a pattern that admissions officers say they often see: At expensive prep schools, even students close to the bottom of the class usually have above-average SAT scores, mostly because they have access to high-octane test-prep classes and tutors.
“O.K., you’re not motivated, you’re doing the minimum at your high school,” Pérez explained, describing the students Trinity used to admit in droves. “You have not worked as hard as your peers. But you did the test prep, and you learned how to play the SAT game.”
If you work in admissions at a place like Trinity was before Pérez arrived, SAT scores can provide a convenient justification for admitting the kind of students you might feel compelled to accept because they can pay full tuition. It’s hard to feel good about choosing an academically undeserving rich kid over a striving and ambitious poor kid with better high school grades. But if the rich student you’re admitting has a higher SAT score than the poor student you’re rejecting, you can tell yourself that your decision was based on “college readiness” rather than ability to pay.
The problem is, rich kids who aren’t motivated to work hard and get good grades in high school often aren’t college-ready, however inflated their SAT scores may be. At Trinity, this meant there was a growing number of affluent students on campus who couldn’t keep up in class and weren’t interested in trying. “It had a morale effect on our faculty,” Pérez told me. “They were teaching a very divided campus. The majority of students were really smart and engaged and curious, and then you’ve got these other students” — the affluent group with pumped-up SAT scores and lower G.P.A.s — “who were wondering, How did I get into this school?”The whole article is great, but I highlight this section because it at least gestures at an issue I've been flagging for years: the potential (but largely unremarked upon) "mismatch" of wealthy students being admitted to universities that they are insufficiently prepared for. The "mismatch" hypothesis was pioneered by Richard Sander as an objection to race-based affirmative action programs which, he contended, systematically place minority students at schools above their intellectual level and thus harm their putative beneficiary. The talented student who would be a great fit for and excel at the University of Maryland instead is admitted to Cornell, where he struggles mightily -- ultimately losing more than he gains.
It was an interesting argument, but I argued then and maintain now that it is one whose logic would apply across many other cases where students are admitted to colleges that are -- at least based purely on academics -- "reach" schools. Athletes are one obvious example, but wealthy students whose case-for-admission relies primarily on (a) their ability to pay and (b) goosed standardized test scores that are also primarily a function of ability to pay would be another. Yet parents, guidance counselors, advisers, employers -- nobody acts as if these students will be hurt if they are admitted to Cornell instead of Maryland. Indeed, the entire structure of the collegiate application system is premised on the opposite -- a mad rush to ensure they do get into the "best" school possible.
Maybe they're all deluded; though it's just as likely that they will instead benefit exactly as they anticipate -- optimistically, from being pushed and forced to find a new gear in themselves, cynically from the value of letterhead. This is the only article I've ever seen even gesture at the possibility that the wealthy admits are themselves being ill-served -- finding themselves in an academic environment they're ill-prepared for, regressing back to their high school mean, and wondering whether they really belong at all (elsewhere in the article, we're told that Pell Grant recipients -- a good proxy for low-income students -- have significantly higher graduation rates than the student body writ large, suggesting that they're on the whole a stronger cadre of students).
But really, the fleeting consideration of this possibility is the exception that tests the rule. Is anybody truly concerned that the wealthy kid who got into Trinity primarily because they could afford to pay full-freight will be damaged for life? We might (and probably do) have sympathy for the meritocracy-based arguments that say he shouldn't have been admitted, but are we really also going to act like the objection to this system is for his own good too? No, obviously. The circumstances where smart, qualified, but poorer students are denied admission to good schools in favor of less-talented, less-qualified, but wealthier candidates is wrong -- but not because it's actually to the disadvantage of the latter group.