Study: Family income does not dictate UW-Madison admission

April 16, 2009

New research from the Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows that UW-Madison is not letting a family's income determine whether the campus admits a freshman.

"Our analysis demonstrates that the University of Wisconsin-Madison remains accessible to students from different socioeconomic groups," says economist and public affairs scholar Barbara "Bobbi" Wolfe. "Wisconsin policymakers can take heart that potential freshmen from low-income families are continuing to apply to the University of Wisconsin-Madison and are not being denied admission on the basis of their family income."

The research also shows that while the relative family incomes of Wisconsin and Minnesota applicants have stayed flat, the income of out-of-state applicants has increased considerably over time relative to median national income.

Concern has been expressed around the United States that higher education is becoming less accessible.

"Nationally, the percentage of college students from families in the top income bracket has been increasing faster than students from the bottom bracket," says political scientist and public affairs scholar John Witte. "The good news is that the University of Wisconsin-Madison's admissions process is not becoming more elite in terms of income, even as it has become more selective."

Wolfe and Witte released their research in the spring La Follette Policy Report, which focuses on access to higher education and the importance of a college degree for a worker to command higher wages.

Because family income is not recorded on student applications to the university, Witte and Wolfe worked with the campus Applied Population Laboratory to match census data to applications going back to 1972.

They adjusted the census data from 1980, 1990 and 2000 to approximate family income for each application year (no names were attached to the information) and converted everything to 2006 dollars. Wolfe and Witte divided their sample into Wisconsin residents, Minnesota residents and residents from all other 48 states to account for the three tuition rates Badgers pay.

Wolfe and Witte look at median family income, relative family income and admission rates over time.

"The families of Wisconsin applicants have incomes that are 1.2 to 1.3 percent higher than the state average, while the income for Minnesota applicants is 1.5 times greater than that state's average," Wolfe says. "In addition, people applying from outside Wisconsin and Minnesota tend to be from wealthier families, with family incomes of 1.8 to 2.5 times the average national income. The pattern in Wisconsin did not change over the entire period we studied; we find no evidence that applicants are now coming from higher up in Wisconsin's income distribution."

What's more, Witte adds, is that while the relative family incomes of Wisconsin and Minnesota applicants have stayed flat, "the income of out-of-state applicants has increased considerably over time relative to median national income."

But in the end, family income does not dictate admission, Witte says.

"Comparisons of real and relative family incomes of admitted students versus rejected students show that a family's income does not systematically influence whether the University of Wisconsin-Madison admits a student," he says.

Wolfe says the next phase of the research will examine who enrolls at UW-Madison and who graduates, and the extent to which family income plays a role.

The La Follette Policy Report is available here

A longer version of this study is available through the La Follette School of Public Affairs Working Paper Series.