New Data Reveals, For First Time, Each Colleges' Share of Rich Kids

Blog Post
April 18, 2017

The College of William & Mary, the country's second oldest higher-education institution, is a top public research university. But in many ways, the school is a lot more like an elite private liberal arts college than a sprawling public university. With just about 6,300 undergraduates, William & Mary’s student body is slightly smaller than Duke’s. Similar to many elite privates, the college boasts of a low student-to-faculty ratio of 12-to-1, and an impressive six-year graduation rate of 90 percent.

William & Mary resembles elite private colleges in another key way as well: it overwhelmingly serves an elite financial clientele. Nearly three-quarters of the college’s Class of 2013 came from families with annual incomes between $110,000 and more than $3 million. The average family income of students that year was $270,577 and the median was $176,400, the highest amount of any public university.

More than half of the William and Mary’s students (56 percent) came from families from the top 10 percent of the income scale (making $144,000 or more) and more than a third were from families in the top 5 percent (making at least $189,000).  Over 6 percent came from families in the top 1 percent, making at least $631,000. Only six other public universities – the University of Michigan, the College of Charleston, the Universities of Virginia and Colorado, and Miami University – served more one-percenters in the Class of 2013.

On the other end of the spectrum, only 12 percent of William & Mary students came from families making less than about $65,000, and 5 percent came from those with a family income below $37,000. Just three other public universities – Christopher Newport and James Madison Universities, which are also located in Virginia, and the University of Delaware – served a smaller share (less than 2 percent) of the lowest income students, coming from families making under $20,000.

How do we know all this? These data come from a trail-blazing new study from economists Raj Chetty, John Friedman, and their colleagues. The study highlights schools that provide opportunities for socioeconomic mobility and shine a spotlight on those that don’t.

But in addition to measuring mobility, the study provides the clearest picture we’ve ever had of the family income breakdown of students at individual colleges. Up until now, we’ve had to rely on a single data point to judge how socio-economically diverse colleges are: the percentage of Pell Grant recipients they each enroll. That data give us a pretty good idea of whether a college is committed to enrolling low-income students (although the view is not complete – which will be the topic of a future post), but they don’t give us any information on the share of students at the college whose families are wealthy and pay the full freight. That’s because colleges are required to report to the federal government only the family income data of students who receive federal financial aid. College officials have long argued that schools don’t have any way of knowing how much students’ families make if they pay their own way.

Chetty and his colleagues got around this limitation by working with the U.S. Treasury Department to get access to anonymized tax returns that they could link to college attendance records. By doing so, they were able to get family earnings data for nearly all traditional students (those between the ages of 18 and 22) who attended college anytime between 1999 and 2013.

As a result, the researchers were able to reveal data about colleges that their leaders and lobbyists have long tried to keep hidden. Until now, we knew that the College of William & Mary was among the least socioeconomically diverse public universities in the country. But we didn’t know just how much of a bastion of privilege it really is.

This is the fifth post in a series we are running about new, groundbreaking research that looks at how effective different colleges are in providing social mobility to their students. To see previous posts, click here.