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UNC: Rich in diversity or just plain rich?

Student Income Diversity

A study of anonymized tax data linked to attendance records confirms that wealthier students are overrepresented at UNC. Almost one in four of UNC students born in 1991 came from families in the top 5 percent of incomes.

But there’s one relatively stagnant number that you might not have heard about from admissions data: household income.

In every incoming class since 2009, the majority of new students who responded estimated that their parents’ total household income was $100,000 or more.

The question, which is in a survey that first-years are given at new student orientation the summer before they start college, asks students to estimate their parents’ income. In the Class of 2020, 2,544 students, or 60 percent of new students, answered the question.

The data

The results of the question, which more than 2,300 students responded to in most years, could suffer from voluntary response bias or students not knowing how much money their parents make.

However, a study by The Equality of Opportunity Project that links anonymized tax data with attendance records confirms that wealthier students, such as those in the fifth quintile — the highest 20 percent of incomes — or top 1 percent, are overrepresented at UNC.

The study looks at data from the parents of all babies born in 1991 — or people who probably graduated in approximately 2013 if they went to a four-year college.

In the study, researchers calculated the average of a family’s income over the course of five years for the fiscal years 2006-2010, when the children were in their late teens.

Of the parents whose 1991 babies attended UNC, the median household income was $129,500 — the 77th percentile among other households with children born in that year, and the mean household income of UNC parents was $221,588.

Almost one in four UNC students in the study came from families in the top 5 percent of incomes. The study also showed that 40.7 percent came from the top 10 percent of incomes, and 5.5 percent of them came from “the 1 percent.”

Benny Goldman, a Stanford pre-doctoral student who helped analzye the data for the study, said that UNC has a smaller percentage of students from the richest 1 percent than many elite schools. At Duke, for example, 19 percent of students came from the top 1 percent.

“UNC also takes on a few more lower-income and middle-class students than those places as well,” he said. "In terms of the number of lower-income students, UNC is an average elite school, but in terms of number of super wealthy kids, UNC has fewer compared to most elite schools. That’s not to say it’s an economically diverse place. All elite schools tend to kind of not be so, but I would say UNC is a far less extreme example.”

Before college

Of the UNC students in the research study’s data, 3.5 percent fell into the bottom 20 percent of incomes.

About 21 percent came from the bottom 60 percent. On the other hand, more than 59 percent of students came from the wealthiest 20 percent.

Goldman said there are many reasons why poor and even middle-class students are less likely than wealthy students to attend ‘elite’ colleges, which the study considers the 82 schools labelled highly selective in Barron’s 2009 college rankings to be.

Steve Farmer, vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions, said low-income students face challenges long before they’re thinking about whether or where to go to college. Farmer helped start Carolina Advising Corps, a program where recent UNC graduates work as advisers who help students with college planning at impoverished North Carolina high schools.

“If all we’re doing is trying to make sure our own class is strong, we’re not doing enough,” he said.

After graduation

UNC’s post-graduation mobility rates are consistent with those at other top-tier colleges — but only up to a certain point.

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A second part of the research looked at the tax returns of people aged 32-34 who graduated from college in the early 2000s. The results show that at UNC, there is a positive association between growing up in a high quintile and being wealthier by age 32-34. However, the expected income percentile of a person who grew up in the bottom 20 percent and top 20 were the 63rd and 71st respectively — only a 7 percent difference.

What’s more striking is how socioeconomic status as a teenager affects the chance of making it to the top among UNC graduates: 33.3 percent of graduates who spent their adolescence in the first quintile made it to the highest 20 percent of earners by their mid-30s whereas 53.6 percent of graduates who were in the fifth quintile as teenagers stayed there.

Similarly, 2.5 percent of graduates whose parents were in the first quintile reached the wealthiest 1 percent of incomes while more than 7 percent of graduates who grew up in the richest 20 percent of incomes made it to “the 1 percent.”

Goldman said UNC’s outcomes are unusual for elite universities.

“One of the general patterns we see in the data is at top schools, there actually doesn’t tend to be a difference of chance you do well when you’re older based on parent income once you’re already into the school,” he said.

Goldman said he doesn’t know why some schools are more successful at mobility than others.

“There’s other places, mostly concentrated in the southeastern United States, where if you’re born into a low-income family, you have a really tiny chance of ever getting out of poverty,” he said. 

Alanna Gillis, a sociology PhD student at UNC, said wealthier students are more likely to have connections that help them land jobs.

“We know that more than half of people found out about the job that they’re in right now through someone that they know,” Gillis said. “If we think about people coming from families who are in these really high-income jobs, when the students attend college afterwards, those families have those connections to be able to get those students internships at these really prestigious corporations and things like that.”