Study Finds Low-Income Students Do Well After Vanderbilt, But Few Attend In The First Place

Mar 27, 2017

Vanderbilt has long had a reputation for attracting wealthy students. However,  no one knew exactly how wealthy  until earlier this year. That’s when economists at Stanford, Harvard and Brown released a massive new dataset on America’s colleges and universities.

It found that nearly a quarter of Vanderbilt students come from families in the top 1 percent of earners. That makes Vanderbilt one of the wealthiest schools in the nation — number four, to be exact. 

Schafer Kowalchik, a Vanderbilt junior from Atlanta, says she isn’t surprised.

“Just based upon the people that I see here and my friends — I think that all of them come from pretty top-earning families,” says Kowalchik. “Even though Vanderbilt is dedicated to need-blind admission, I think that they just attract the types of students that come from top families.”

Kowalchik grew up in less affluent circumstances: her mother was a single parent for most of her childhood. Her family’s income jumped when her mother remarried. But even without that boost, Vanderbilt would have given her a good shot at the upper-middle class. Nearly two-thirds of graduates from low-income families make it into the top 20 percent of earners.

That’s an impressive achievement. Vanderbilt isn’t trumpeting these results though. One reason: it doesn’t enroll very many kids from low-income families in the first place.

In 2013, less than 2 percent of Vanderbilt students came from low-income families. In other words, students from rich families outnumbered students from poor families by more than 10 to one, despite a change in 2009 that replaced student loans with grants and financial aid.

“Relative to other elite institutions, Vanderbilt is just below average in terms of the fraction of poor students in their student body, but it does better than average when it comes to the outcomes of their students once they get to their mid-30s,” says Brown University economist John Friedman, who worked with Stanford University economist Raj Chetty on the study.

Dean of admissions Douglas Christiansen says he believes Friedman’s study understates recent improvements. One thing he doesn’t dispute, though, is the finding  that low-income students who attend Vanderbilt see a big boost in income. Thirteen percent of them make it into the top 1 percent.

“We can see if you come to Vanderbilt and you are in the lowest income, ... look at those chances you have to generationally change the framework of your family,” says Christiansen. “And so very much we are trying to change that base of the lowest income because we can see what it does.”

It remains to be seen whether more kids from low-income families will get those opportunities in the first place.

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