Rich kids’ grades are rising faster, and intelligence probably isn’t the reason why

An A is right around the corner.
An A is right around the corner.
Image: Reuters/Mike Segar
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It’s no secret that rich parents go to great lengths to get their kids into the best colleges.  New US research may quantify just how far.

Research from Michael Hurwitz, a researcher from the College Board, and Jason Lee, from the Institute of Higher Education at the University of Georgia, looked at grade point averages (GPAs) of students who took the SAT between 1998 and 2016. They measured how much grades rose in different schools, including private independent (not religious), private religious, suburban public, and urban public schools. They found grades are on the rise—something federal research backs up—even though SAT scores declined slightly, the researchers confirmed to Quartz. But GPAs at private independent schools rose the most (these schools, unsurprisingly, attract the highest concentration of wealthy families): 8% over the 18 years, compared to 0.6% for urban public schools.



Higher grades enable children from such private schools to gain acceptance to the most elite colleges, which, in turn, helps them to get better jobs upon graduation. But while it may appear that rich kids are doing better in school, it’s unlikely that they are getting that much smarter than their non-private school peers. One theory, offered by Richard Weissbourd, a lecturer and researcher at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education who has studied the college admissions process is that wealthier parents are more demanding than those who send their children to less expensive schools.

Weissbourd told the Hechinger report that private schools in particular need “to be attractive to parents, need to be able to tout how many of their students went to selective colleges. So they’re incentivized to give better grades.” These independent schools have to justify their price tag—now about $40,000 per year in cities like New York and San Francisco. Along with suburban public schools, they have to face off against parents who are hyper-focused on college admissions, and hell-bent on making sure their kids get good grades.

“It becomes very high maintenance for schools to deal with aggressive parents. So that can also push grades up,” Weissbourd said.

The consequence for children whose parents can’t afford $40,000-a-year tuitions—lower and middle class kids—is of course terrible. When deciding whether to admit a student, colleges more heavily weigh grades over standardized tests like the ACT and SAT, because they show a student’s performance over a period of time rather than on a particular day.

Every year, the National Association for College Admission Counseling asks college admissions officers what they care about most. Every year, they say grades. In the most recent survey (fall 2014 admissions cycle), 79.2% of responding colleges and universities gave “considerable importance” to grades in students’ college-prep classes, compared to 55.7% who assigned the same importance to standardized tests.

The research will be included as a chapter in a book on admissions decisions to be published in January by Johns Hopkins University Press; the College Board provided details to Quartz.

All that inflation adds up. In 2016, the average GPA, by type of school looked like this, according to data provided by the authors:

Chalk artificially high grades up to one more advantage rich kids have over their poorer counterparts, including more college-prep courses, more access to test prep services, and more with parents who attended college.

“It’s a terribly uneven playing field,” Weissbourd said.