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Affirmative Action in US Colleges

Really interesting reading for inequality here! This article from Planet Money examines the advantages wealthy students have when applying to elite colleges, attributing it to access to high-quality test prep, ability to participate in elite sports, and attending affluent private high schools. The article discusses a recent study which contradicts previous assumptions, suggesting that attending top colleges significantly boosts future success, particularly for less affluent students. Given the recent ban on race-based affirmative action, the authors propose a socioeconomically-based admission process, to promote diversity while focusing on overcoming adversity. This could involve consideration of students from low socio-economic neighbourhoods who excel academically, achieving against the odds.

It is a long read and dissects an academic paper but the language is very informal, so it is still reasonably accessible. This would be a particularly good choice if you are trying to build students' reading stamina or introduce students to academic papers. It has clear subheadings, so would also lend itself to being split up. I'd recommend groups of 4 where each student reads the intro (up to 'Silver spoon-fed schools) and then summarises a whole section (note: the section 'Why rich kids are getting admitted more' is shorter than the others, so you might want to assign that to weaker students, or give additional tasks to that student).

Possible Questions:


1. What are the three reasons mentioned in the article for wealthy students having an admissions advantage?

2. How does athletic recruitment give an advantage to rich kids?

3. What elite sports are particularly mentioned as offering an advantage to rich kids?

4. What role do non-academic ratings play in college admissions?

5. How does attending an elite private high school help rich kids in their college applications?

6. What argument is made about the influence of attending an Ivy-Plus college on a student's future career?

7. What previous assumptions about the impact of college choice on future career outcomes are disputed in the article?

8. What type of 'quasi-experiment' do the researchers use in their study?

9. How do the researchers' findings differ from previous studies when it comes to average earnings?

10. What is the effect of attending an elite private school on 'upper-tail' outcomes?

11. How is the practice of legacy admission critiqued in the article?

12. What impact do SAT and ACT scores have on future success, according to the study?

13. What reasons do colleges give for maintaining legacy admission programs?

14. How does the end of race-conscious affirmative action potentially impact diversity at elite schools?

15. What is the proposed 'zip code-based affirmative action'?

16. How does this proposal aim to promote both racial and socioeconomic diversity?

17. What advantage does a student from a poverty-stricken neighbourhood who scores a 1500 on the SATs have, according to the article?

18. How might the recent Supreme Court decision affect the composition of the student body at elite colleges?

19. What role do wealthy parents' donations and endowments play in the continuation of legacy admission programs?

20. What is the potential impact of reforming admission practices at elite schools, as suggested by the article?


  1. How does 'privileged' differ from 'elite'?

  2. How is the term 'stellar' used in relation to sports teams within the text?

  3. What does 'quasi' mean?

  4. Give 2 other terms that contain 'quasi' and explain what they mean

  5. Using this, what is meant by a 'quasi-expermiment'?

  6. In the context of this article, what does 'outcomes' mean?

  7. How is 'reform' different from 'change'?

  8. How is the term 'flagship' used in relation to universities?

  9. How is 'scrutinise' different from 'examine' or 'inspect'?

  10. How is 'adversity' defined in the context of this article?

  11. What does 'underrepresentation' mean in this text?

  12. What does 'overt' mean?

  13. What is the opposite of 'overt'?

  14. What does 'endowments' mean in this context?


1. What percentage of the admission boost for students from the richest 1% of families comes from athletic excellence?

2. How much of the admissions advantage for rich kids is explained by their higher non-academic ratings?

3. By how much does attending an Ivy-Plus college increase low-income students' chances of reaching the top 1% of the earnings distribution?

4. How much does attending an Ivy-Plus college increase low-income students' chances of attending an elite graduate school?

5. How much does attending an Ivy-Plus college increase low-income students' chances of working at a prestigious firm?

6. According to a previous study, how much more likely were kids from the richest 1% of American families to attend an Ivy League college than those from families in the bottom fifth of the income distribution?

7. How much does an elite school's attendance increase the likelihood of these kids reaching the top 1% of income earners?

8. What is the increase in chances for low-income students to reach the top 1% of earnings distribution if they attend an Ivy-Plus college instead of an average highly selective public flagship institution?

9. If a student scores 1500 on the SATs, how does it compare to the average score of 1060 in terms of percentiles?

10. According to the resource, what is the multiplier effect on a student's chances of reaching the top 1% of the earnings distribution by attending an Ivy-Plus college?

Discussion questions

1. Can the admissions advantage of the rich be considered a form of market failure?

2. How could unequal access to education affect economic growth?

3. What are the likely business objectives of Colleges?

4. What information failure might exist in the college admissions process?

5. What are the possible impacts of educational inequality on labour markets?

6. What other measures, apart from zip code-based affirmative action, could be implemented to promote diversity at elite schools?

7. How might the end of race-conscious affirmative action might affect economic disparities?

8. Discuss the arguments for and against the view that the influence of donations and endowments on admissions decisions is rational

9. Should elite private schools give more weight to academic credentials over non-academic ratings?

10. Discuss the arguments for and against the view in their admissions processes?

11. How can the economic concept of supply and demand be applied to the competition for spots in elite colleges?

12. What are the potential macroeconomic implications of the concentration of wealthy students at elite colleges?

An alternative would be reading the abstract of the original paper. This is quite dense, but is short enough that you can demonstrate how to dissect it.

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