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Top 10 Colleges with the Richest Students

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It may come as a surprise that no Ivy League schools make the list of the 10 colleges with the richest students, at least based on median family income. However, elite schools do have disproportionately wealthy students in general, and the Ivies are no exception. Keep reading to learn about the schools with the wealthiest students, why top schools attract wealthy students, and the challenges faced by low-income students at schools primarily populated with rich students. 


10 Colleges with the Richest Students


This list is based on median family income, but there are other ways to measure how “rich” a student body is, such as percentage of students from the top 1%, or share of students from the top 20%. The NY Times gathered data on student wealth at hundreds of schools, and you can explore that data more in the page on Economic Diversity and Student Outcomes at America’s Colleges.


School Location  Median Family Income Percentage of Students from the Top 1%
Colorado College Colorado Springs, CO $277,500 24%
Washington University in St. Louis (WashU) St. Louis, MO $272,000 22%
Colgate University  Hamilton, NY $270,200 23%
Washington and Lee Lexington, VA  $261,00 19%
Trinity College Hartford, CT $257,100 26%
Middlebury College Middlebury, NY $244,300 23%
Colby College Waterville, ME $236,100 20%
Georgetown University  Washington, D.C.  $229,100 21%
Bates College Lewiston, ME $226,500 18%
Tufts University  Medford, MA $224,800 19%

Source: NYTimes


Do Top Schools Attract Wealthy Students?


A handful of recent studies, most notably a study released from a team led by Harvard economist Raj Chetty, has shown that the top U.S. schools attract a significantly higher proportion of students from the wealthiest income brackets than they do the bottom. One of the big takeaways from Chetty and his team’s study is that students from families in the top 1%—those who make more than $630,000 a year—are 77 times more likely to be admitted to and attend an Ivy League school than students coming from families who make less than $30,000 a year. 


Another interesting takeaway from Chetty’s study is that at 38 U.S. colleges—including five of the eight Ivy League schools—more students come from the top 1% of the income scale than come from the bottom 60%. That information confirms data found in an earlier study from Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl of Georgetown University’s Center on Education. In their examination of college demographics between 1982 and 2006, they found that just 14% of undergraduates at the most competitive schools come from families who make up the bottom half of the U.S. income distribution.


Why Do Top Schools Have Such Rich Students?


In recent years, many colleges in the U.S. have taken steps to become more affordable and accessible to low-income families, but the fact remains that these institutions are still magnets for students from wealthy families. The reasons for this are vast—institutional barriers, societal barricades, and lack of resources all contribute to the disproportionate ratio of wealthy students to low-income students at the nation’s best schools. 


More Resources: One of the leading reasons that the country’s best colleges are so heavily populated by students from families with high incomes is access to resources. The New York Times detailed the extremely expensive world of college prep in their 2019 article, “Inside the Pricey, Totally Legal World of College Consultants,” highlighting the New York City-based college admissions consulting firm Ivy Coach. The NY Times article goes on to detail how, for prices up to $1.5 million, parents can buy a full-service college prep package that steers students toward the right classes and extracurriculars, and includes intensive test prep and close essay editing.  


Athletic Advantage: Another area where the imbalance of resources manifests itself is in athletics—look no further than the recent star-studded college admissions scandal to see the value sports play in college admissions. Popular sports at elite universities include rowing, golf, squash, and fencing. These sports have a high cost of entry—requiring membership to a club in many cases—and involve a further expense of time, money, and effort to become a college-level athlete. The Daily Princetonian did a great job highlighting how wealthy athletes from wealthy towns are absorbed into elite schools in their article, “Ivy League athletics are the new ‘Moneyball.’


Lasting Legacy: A 2011 study concluded that a student with legacy status was more than three times as likely to get accepted at 30 highly selective colleges and universities, finding admission was based more on family ties to the institution than their academic profile. The study additionally found that the legacy advantage is even greater through early admissions, further favoring wealthy students who can afford to risk not getting a substantial financial aid package. 

Challenges Low-Income Students Face if They Attend Rich Colleges


Even when low-income students manage to jump the numerous hurdles in front of them and gain admission into a wealthy school, the structure of many of these institutions creates additional challenges. 


Work Study: In theory, work study programs are an excellent way for lower-income students to cover college costs while pursuing their degrees. However, they can also enhance the distinction between social classes in the student body—the lines between these classes are particularly sharp at rich schools. Many lower-income students find it difficult to be viewed as an equal, or feel like they belong in the classroom, when they just served their peers lunch in the dining hall.   


Social Structure: Even disregarding work-study programs, there is an inherent inequality between the students at the top of the income bracket and the bottom. Low-income students are competing against students who haven’t just read about the Sistine Chapel, Mona Lisa, or Machu Picchu, but have likely seen them in person. It creates a culture shock and a sense of isolation. 


College Culture: In his book, The Privileged Poor, Harvard professor Anthony Abraham Jack cites a lack of exposure to the nuances of the elite college structure as a reason low-income students struggle at elite universities. For example, Jack discusses a lack of awareness of the “hidden curriculum” of these institutions—office hours, fellowships, and other academic advantages—that these students don’t know exist. 


Friendly Faces: Another interesting factor that Jack points out is that for low-income students of color, it’s often the first time they’ll have met or interacted with a middle- or upper-class person of color. The result is that the anticipated familiar face isn’t that familiar because there is no common reference point. 


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Short Bio
A graduate of Northeastern University with a degree in English, Tim Peck currently lives in Concord, New Hampshire, where he balances a freelance writing career with the needs of his two Australian Shepherds to play outside.