college

Should Colleges Give Preference to Applicants From Wealthy Families?

Every admitted student should meet the college’s basic academic qualifications.

Q. I hear that admissions offices at some elite colleges favor the sons and daughters of rich families, in anticipation of large donations after enrollment. Do you think this is ethical?

A. No, if the rich applicant’s family has no previous connection to the school. Colleges should never solicit or accept large donations from such a family if a child is in or about to enter the admissions process—a corrupt practice revealed in Daniel Golden’s 2006 exposé, The Price of Admission.

But an admissions preference for a qualified applicant whose alumni parents or grandparents have long supported the college as passionate volunteers and donors? That’s okay. It’s just one of many weightings given to applicants of all sorts.

In an ideal world that has never existed, admissions decisions would be based solely on factors for which the applicant is personally responsible, such as grades, test scores, demonstrated leadership, athletic or artistic talents, and a record of helping others. No weight would be given to factors over which an applicant has no personal control, such as race, sex, geography and the socio­economic circumstances of the family, whether high or low.

But for decades, colleges have gone far beyond individual traits in deciding whom to admit. To craft a well-rounded, multitalented student body that reflects the diversity of their region, if not the nation, they routinely admit applicants who might be academically less stellar (by the numbers, which are themselves not highly reliable) than the college’s typical freshman.

Band directors and sports coaches will get the musicians and athletes they need, even if the academic bar is lowered a bit for the top recruits. Underrepresented racial minorities will be cut some slack, especially if they have shown grit in overcoming poverty. For geographic diversity, an applicant from rural North Dakota will get the nod over an academically similar (or better) candidate from Westchester County, N.Y.

All of these preferences—like the alumni donor preference—strike me as legitimate, provided that every admitted student meets the college’s basic academic qualifications.

Have a money-and-ethics question you’d like answered in this column? Write to editor in chief Knight Kiplinger at ethics@kiplinger.com.

Most Popular

‘I Can’t Retire – I Need Health Insurance’
health insurance

‘I Can’t Retire – I Need Health Insurance’

Health insurance is seen as a huge hurdle for early retirees, but the answer to finding affordable coverage could be simpler than you think.
August 7, 2022
Your Guide to Roth Conversions
Special Report
Tax Breaks

Your Guide to Roth Conversions

A Kiplinger Special Report
February 25, 2021
The 25 Cheapest U.S. Cities to Live In
places to live

The 25 Cheapest U.S. Cities to Live In

Take a look at our list of American cities with the lowest costs of living. Is one of the cheapest cities in the U.S. right for you?
August 7, 2022

Recommended

Should You Treat Your Kids Equally in Your Will? 12 Financial Planners Weigh In
retirement

Should You Treat Your Kids Equally in Your Will? 12 Financial Planners Weigh In

What's the "fair" way to divide an estate? Many parents think they should divvy things evenly among their children ... but that can backfire. So what'…
August 1, 2022
Chasing Athletic Scholarship Dreams Can Be a Costly Mistake
Paying for College

Chasing Athletic Scholarship Dreams Can Be a Costly Mistake

Camps. Equipment. Travel to tournaments. Recruiting fees. It’s expensive to have a high school student-athlete in your home. But who doesn’t dream of …
July 17, 2022
When Will Student Loans Be Forgiven?
Paying for College

When Will Student Loans Be Forgiven?

Millions of Americans are waiting for the Biden Administration’s next hint, which could come later this summer, at how he’ll address the student loan …
July 7, 2022
Financial Advice from America’s Founding Fathers
credit & debt

Financial Advice from America’s Founding Fathers

What money-management guidance can we glean from the words — and experience — of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and others?
June 30, 2022