Wealth Trumps Income In Determining College Access

Guest blogger:  Su Jin Jez

As covered by the Chronicle of Higher Ed, my paper titled “The Differential Impact of Wealth vs. Income in the College-Going Process” finds that wealth and income affect the college choice process differently, with wealth consistently being more significant in predicting who enrolls in college, and the type of college they attend – even after controlling for student differences in academic achievement, habitus, social capital, and cultural capital.

Policy makers looking to level the playing field and make college more accessible to all American’s must address wealth’s impact on the college-going process, instead of merely focusing on issues of income.  Public policy has had an emphasis on promoting college access (e.g., affirmative action, financial aid, federally-funded TRIO programs), and we may be seeing the results of these efforts as high wealth students’ are no more likely to apply to college than low wealth students after we consider things like parents’ and students’ educational expectations and parents’ educational attainment. 

But while these policies may be getting lower wealth students to apply to college, we do not see the same results for college attendance.  Wealthy students are significantly more likely to attend college, attend four-year colleges, and, especially, attend most and highly selective colleges than less wealthy students, even after controlling for a variety of background characteristics.  Policymaking focused on income would miss much of these disparities, as income’s impact on college attendance is largely explained by students’ upbringing.

What might we do to address the persistent wealth disparities in college attendance, especially selective college attendance?  K-12 and higher education institutions must think more critically about how wealth affects the college-going process – and beyond the characteristics I aim to control for in this study, like academic achievement, and parent, student, and peer expectations.  The most effective policies in reducing wealth disparities in college attendance will likely require K-12 and higher education institutions to work together.  Together, they must analyze why lower wealth students expect to attend college, apply to college, but then do not attend – and it is not due the usual factors that are discussed, like lower levels of academic achievement, parental support, or even peer influence.  They must then work to ensure that processes and structures are institutionalized to support a frictionless pathway to higher education and an open system of communication to ensure that this alignment is responsive to changing student needs.

Su Jin Jez is an assistant Professor  at California State University , Sacramento

Chronicle of Higher Education article available at:

Full study available at:


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