The role of socioeconomic status in SAT score, grades and college-admissions decisions

Weidner Library (Harvard University)
Weidner Library (Harvard University)

College is often seen as a way for talented individuals to gain professional opportunities and increase social mobility, but some studies have painted a less rosy picture. Advanced education requires significant financial investment and in some cases has been shown to produce outcomes that conform to existing patterns of social inequality. And while all applicants are supposed to start out on an equal footing, higher socioeconomic status has often been theorized to influence admissions decisions.

A 2012 study from the University of Minnesota published in Psychological Science, “The Role of Socioeconomic Status in SAT-Grade Relationships and in College Admissions Decisions,” examined the relationship between socioeconomic status, secondary-school grades, college admissions and college freshman grade-point average.

The study was based on 2006 College Board data and 1996-1999 University of California data. More than 100 institutions were examined, including private and public, large and small. To estimate an institution’s applicant pool, the researchers looked at students who asked for their SAT scores to be sent to a given college. The results were also compared to those from a similar study conducted in 1995. The researchers looked at two questions: First, are SAT scores the primary driver of unequal admissions outcomes? Second, are SATs in fact useful in predicting college performance?

Key findings include:

  • Socioeconomic status (SES) and SAT scores are positively correlated: Students from higher income backgrounds generally achieve higher scores, and “21.2% of variance in SAT scores is shared with SES, as measured here as a composite of mother’s education, father’s education, and parental income.” The researchers note that the “source of the SAT-SES relationship is likely due to some combination of educational opportunity, school quality, peer effects and other social factors.”
  • However, the socioeconomic status of a college’s freshman population was only marginally higher than that of its pool of applicants. Students’ SAT scores (20%) and high school GPA (18%) were significantly higher than those of the applicant pool, with more selective colleges showing an even larger gap. But the lower SAT scores of poorer applicants themselves are not the primary grounds for unequal outcomes.
  • This finding challenges the “popular notion that U.S. college selection systems actively screen out low-SES students. An admissions policy that relied heavily or exclusively on the SAT would indeed screen out low-SES students at a higher rate than high-SES students. However, the data from the 110 schools suggest that in the typical U.S. school, SES does not play a primary exclusionary role in the admissions process.”
  • The study suggests that unequal outcomes are primarily caused by deeper factors that channel poorer students away from the college process: “Once students are in the applicant pool for a given school, the school typically does not substantially restrict entry on the basis of SES. Although low-SES students are less likely to enroll in college, this appears to be a function of differences in the rates at which high-and low-SES students choose to enter the college application process.”
  • The data suggest that the SATs continues to be useful in predicting college academic performance: “Contrary to the popular assertion that tests like the SAT predict nothing but freshman grades, extensive research documents the relationship between test scores and academic performance throughout the curriculum.”
  • A student’s high-school grade-point average and SAT scores were both good predictors of college academic performance, but the most accurate predictor was a combination of the two.

The authors find that the “SAT retains the vast majority of its weight in predicting subsequent college grades when high school GPA and SES are controlled” and that the “relationship between SAT score and freshman GPA is not substantially reduced when SES is controlled.” The study concludes that “given these two findings, it is not the case that the SAT is nothing more than a proxy for SES.”

Tags: youth, inequality, higher education

Last updated: August 29, 2012


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Citation: Sackett, Paul R.; Kuncel, Nathan R.; et al. “The Role of Socioeconomic Status in SAT-Grade Relationships and in College Admissions Decisions,” Psychological Science, August 2012. doi: 10.1177/0956797612438732.