New Surveys Find Strong Preferences For Major Changes In College Admissions Practices

CHICAGO, April 24, 2019 — Just 13 percent of Americans think donations made to a college should be a significant factor in college admissions, according to recent surveys conducted by researchers in the Higher Education Analytics Center (HEAC) at NORC at the University of Chicago and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

The surveys find that Americans want wealth to be less of a factor in college admissions decisions—both in terms of donations made to schools and in terms of a family’s ability to pay full tuition. There is a particularly strong call to reduce the importance of family donations made to a school when considering an applicant for admission. Thirty-one percent of Americans want donations to a college to be emphasized less in college admissions. Overall, 44 percent believe donations made to colleges are currently very important or important in admissions decisions; however, just 13 percent think they should be.

In general, 38 percent regard the college admissions process as fair, while 36 percent consider it unfair. Another 25 percent say it is neither fair nor unfair.

“Americans would like to see changes in how family finances, legacies, and sports are factored into college admissions,” said Ann Kearns Davoren, research scientist in the Education and Child Development department at NORC at the University of Chicago. “This survey shows that the strongest calls were for colleges and universities to place less importance on a family’s donation to the school and less importance on legacy status. Interestingly, college graduates were more likely to want legacy preferences to have less influence when compared with those without a college degree. And while over 20 percent would like athletics to be less of a criterion, one-third still report it should be valued in admissions decisions.”

Some recent polls have captured what Americans think colleges should consider in making admissions decisions. None, however, have asked what they believe colleges do consider and what they should consider, allowing for unique insight into those areas perceived as needing the greatest change—and those areas where most Americans think colleges are getting it right.

“The college admissions process is complex and can be highly competitive both for the colleges and the applicants. We’re hoping this survey helps to shed light on what matters to the American public,” said Karen Grigorian, vice president at NORC at the University of Chicago and co-director of HEAC.

Key results of the survey are included below:

  • Most Americans think high school grades and standardized admission test scores are and should be the most important factors in determining college admission. Eighty-one percent say a student’s performance in high school is important when colleges decide admission, and 76 percent agree that it should be critical to the admission decision. Similarly, 75 percent say scores on tests such as the ACT and SAT are important when colleges consider applications, and 68 percent say they should remain important.

  • Many say a family’s finances should be less of a factor when evaluating college applications. While 44 percent think donations made to the school are considered by colleges when determining a student’s admission, only 13 percent say it should have any significant bearing on admissions. And 46 percent think colleges give weight to the family’s ability to pay full tuition, while only 23 percent think that should be a consideration.

  • A relative who is an alumnus of the college is an important factor in admission according to 37 percent, but only 11 percent think legacy status should be given much consideration.

  • Athletic ability is viewed as important to colleges by 54 percent. However, only 32 percent think colleges should make athletic talent an important factor in considering college applications.

Study Methodology

The surveys were conducted by the Higher Education Analytics Center at NORC and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, with funding from The Associated Press and NORC at the University of Chicago. Data were collected using AmeriSpeak Omnibus®, a bi-monthly multi-client survey using NORC’s probability-based panel designed to be representative of the U.S. household population. The surveys were part of a larger study that included questions about other topics not included in this report.

Interviews for these surveys were conducted between March 28 and April 1, 2019, and April 11 and 14, 2019, with adults age 18 and over representing the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Panel members were randomly drawn from AmeriSpeak. In the first survey, 1,009 completed the survey—899 via the web and 110 via telephone. The overall margin of sampling error is +/- 4.3 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level, including the design effect. For the second survey, 1,108 completed the survey—1,010 via the web and 98 via telephone. The overall margin of sampling error is +/- 4.1 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level, including the design effect. The margins of sampling error may be higher for subgroups.

Two parallel questions were asked:

  1. How important do you think these applicant factors are to 4-year colleges when they review and consider college applications?
  2. Now, how important do you think these applicant factors should be to 4-year colleges when they review and consider college applications?

All estimates have been adjusted by survey weighting, with weights calculated to reflect probability of selection of households and individuals within them. Then estimates are adjusted to align with population totals for age, sex, education, race/Hispanic ethnicity, housing tenure, telephone status, and U.S. region.


The Higher Education Analytics Center (HEAC) at NORC leverages its extensive experience conducting research on higher education to bring effective and affordable research and data collection offerings to institutions of higher education and other organizations related to higher education. HEAC’s focus is informed by its institutional mission and nonprofit status. The aim is to provide postsecondary institutions and related organizations with the data and insights necessary to improve their function and inform their policy decisions to the benefit of students, alumni, educators, academic leaders, and the institutions themselves. All work is approached with deep technical and methodological expertise, a spirit of collaboration, and a commitment to scientific integrity.

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The AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research taps into the power of social science research and the highest-quality journalism to bring key information to people across the nation and throughout the world.

The Associated Press (AP) is the world’s essential news organization, bringing fast, unbiased news to all media platforms and formats.

NORC at the University of Chicago is one of the oldest objective and non-partisan research institutions in the world.

The two organizations have established The AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research to conduct, analyze, and distribute social science research in the public interest on newsworthy topics, and to use the power of journalism to tell the stories that research reveals.

The founding principles of The AP-NORC Center include a mandate to carefully preserve and protect the scientific integrity and objectivity of NORC and the journalistic independence of AP. All work conducted by the Center conforms to the highest levels of scientific integrity to prevent any real or perceived bias in the research. All of the work of the Center is subject to review by its advisory committee to help ensure it meets these standards. The Center will publicize the results of all studies and make all datasets and study documentation available to scholars and the public.

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Contact: For more information, contact Eric Young for NORC at or (703) 217-6814 (cell).


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