New Report Calls for An Admissions Preference for Low-Income Students

Cooke Foundation Report: Top Colleges Should Create Admissions Preference to Help Low-Income Students Overcome Barriers

true-merit-resized-final.pngLANSDOWNE, Va. – America’s top colleges and universities should institute an admissions preference for low-income students because such students – even when they are high-achievers academically – now face unjustified barriers and make up a mere 3 percent of enrollment at the elite schools, according to a landmark report issued today by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.

The Cooke Foundation found that such a “poverty preference” for admissions to selective higher education institutions, akin to existing preferences for athletes and the children of alumni, would create a more level playing field for disadvantaged students.

“We need affirmative action admission programs for academically qualified students who lack the money that brings many advantages to the admissions process,” said Cooke Foundation Executive Director Harold O. Levy. “Right now our nation is failing to fully develop the brainpower of some of our brightest students, simply because their families have less money than most other families. That’s a waste of talent that hurts not just the students but our nation, as we compete with other countries in the global knowledge economy. The wealth of a young person’s family shouldn’t be the key factor in determining if and where the student goes to college.”

The Cooke Foundation report – titled “True Merit: Ensuring Our Brightest Students Have Access to Our Best Colleges and Universities” – shows dramatic differences between enrollment rates at the most selective schools for students from families with the highest and lowest incomes. It highlights the major challenges low-income, high-achieving students face when seeking admission to these colleges and universities.

Perhaps the most significant new finding of the report is that the vast majority of students in America’s most competitive institutions of higher education – 72 percent – come from the wealthiest 25 percent of the U.S. population. In sharp contrast, only 3 percent of students in the most selective schools come from the 25 percent of families with the lowest incomes. The report is the first comprehensive analysis conducted on the postsecondary admissions process as it affects high-achieving, low-income applicants.

The lucky few low-income students who get into top colleges and universities have proven that they can handle the most challenging academic work because 92 percent graduate and do well academically, the report found.

“For many high-achieving, low-income students and their parents, enrolling in a top-tier college far from home seems as impossible as taking a trip to Mars,” Levy said. “Students are unaware of how to apply for scholarships they are eligible to receive. They can’t afford SAT or ACT preparation course fees. They can’t afford to visit colleges that they are considering attending. And they often need to hold after-school jobs that make it hard to participate in athletics and other extracurricular activities in high school. All this sharply reduces their chances of admission to the most selective colleges and universities, amounting to an unjust poverty penalty levied against outstanding students.”

Significantly, the report concludes that preferential college admissions for qualified low-income students could result in as much or more racial and ethnic diversity than is being achieved by current race-based affirmative action policies.

“For decades, affirmative action has sought to right the wrongs of past discrimination and has opened the doors to higher education and better lives for students from minority groups,” Levy said. “Unfortunately, affirmative action for minorities now faces a very real threat of elimination if the Supreme Court rules it unconstitutional in a case recently argued before the court. A new program of preferential admissions for qualified low-income students would disproportionately benefit minority young people, ensure continued diversity in higher education, and keep the American Dream alive for many students born into struggling families.”

Other findings of the Cooke Foundation report include:

  • Only 23 percent of high-achieving, low-income students even apply to a selective school, compared with 48 percent of high-achieving, high-income students.
  • More than 80 percent of the nation’s most selective institutions give a preference to children of alumni, who are typically wealthy.
  • Recruited athletes are as much as four times as likely to be admitted as other similarly qualified students but, once admitted, dramatically underperform compared to others with similar academic credentials.
  • High-achieving, low-income students are only half as likely as wealthier students to take ACT/ SAT prep courses, even though it is clearly documented that the courses raise scores.

The report was authored by Jennifer Giancola, Ph.D., director of research at the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation; and Richard D. Kahlenberg, J.D., senior fellow at The Century Foundation.


The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation is dedicated to advancing the education of exceptionally promising students who have financial need. It offers the largest scholarships in the U.S., comprehensive counseling and other support services to students from 8th grade to graduate school. Since 2000 it has awarded $147 million in scholarships to nearly 2,000 students and over $88 million in grants to organizations that serve high-achieving, low-income students.