Poster Paper: From Affluent Neighbors to High-Caliber Peers: The Influence of Place of Residence On Selective College Admissions

Thursday, November 7, 2013
West End Ballroom A (Washington Marriott)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Kerstin Gentsch, Princeton University
This study examines whether neighborhood socioeconomic composition influences the admissions chances of applicants to selective colleges and universities above and beyond individual/family socioeconomic status and high school quality. Prior empirical work on the determinants of selective college admissions has focused on individual/family and high school characteristics (Espenshade and Radford 2009; Espenshade, Hale, and Chung 2005), but has ignored the role of the place in which applicants live. Because applicants in more affluent neighborhoods are more likely to know and interact with alumni from selective colleges—potentially helping them in the application process—and because admissions officers may see neighborhood affluence as a signal of family wealth, I hypothesize that living in a neighborhood of higher socioeconomic level increases admissions chances to selective colleges.

In order to test this hypothesis, I use the National Study of College Experience’s data on the set of all applicants to ten academically selective institutions for the entering cohort of 1997, and merge on to this zip-code level Census data. Controlling for individual/family demographics, high school academic performance, standardized test scores, and high school quality, I run logistic regression analysis predicting whether or not an applicant in question is admitted as a function of neighborhood income and educational attainment levels.

Preliminary findings show that as neighborhood income and educational attainment levels increase, the odds of being admitted to a selective institution rise, all else equal. This means that students who may be well-prepared academically, but do not live in affluent neighborhoods appear to be at a disadvantage. Given the returns to attending a selective college—including a higher probability of graduating (Long 2007), a higher likelihood of entering leading graduate and professional schools (Bowen and Bok 1998), and higher labor market earnings (Zhang 2005)—this finding is concerning and calls for research on the mechanisms through which the disadvantage occurs. Identification thereof can then lead to specific policy suggestions. If, for example, the mechanism is that applicants in less affluent places interact less with alumni from selective colleges, programs should be implemented to give these students the necessary interaction. If, on the other hand, the mechanism is that admissions officers are biased towards applicants from more affluent neighborhoods, the ball is in the court of the colleges.