Low-income students make up just three percent of the student body at the country's most selective colleges. That's according to new research published last week by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.
The report, entitled True Merit, also shows the nation's wealthiest students make up almost three-quarters of the population at about 100 of the schools that reject most applicants.
Harold Levy, executive director of the foundation, says the problem for low-income students is twofold.
"They don't apply because they get poor college advising, and for the students who do apply the actual admissions process is rigged against them," says Levy.
The report also notes that low-income students who are lucky enough to get into schools like the University of Chicago, which admits just 9 percent of applicants, perform well and have a high graduation rate. Levy suggests college admissions boards should implement a "poverty preference" for high-performing, low-income students to help level the playing field.
He points to admissions tests as one example of how these students face far more barriers in the application process than their more affluent peers.
"Kids in poverty are given a fee waiver to take the SAT once," he says. "Kids of middle class and wealth take it repeatedly and submit their best grades. How fair is that?"
According to Levy and the report, students with high academic performance but fewer economic resources overwhelmingly tend to end up in less competitive schools. That in turn leads to fewer job prospects and less access to powerful positions in government or corporations.
"In the same way there's a preference for the kids of alumni, that is just about an affirmative action for wealthy," says Levy. "We think there ought to be affirmative action for poverty."
This report comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is considering arguments to roll back race-based affirmative action in college admissions.