Research Findings

Institutional sieves: How elite colleges filter student applicants

, and
June 24, 2024

A large share of higher education media attention focuses on selective colleges and universities, from Congressional hearings featuring “Ivy-plus” university presidents to the “operation varsity blues” scandal. These institutions represent only a small subset of higher education, yet attention to them is well warranted. Enrollment at a high-status undergraduate institution is often a passport to lucrative careers or a prestigious graduate education.

Historians, sociologists and higher education scholars have called attention to the role of highly selective institutions as bastions of privilege. Two former presidents of such universities, William G. Bowen and Derek Bok, traced the flow of racially minoritized students through these institutions in their classic book The Shape of the River.

We built on this work to explore what we call “the shape of the sieve.” A sieve strains some bodies out of the flow of water while allowing others to pass through. By extension, we sought to understand the process that admissions officers used to sort a small group of people into high-status colleges and universities while keeping most people out.

To do this, we analyzed data on more than 350 colleges and universities that Barron’s Guide to Colleges selective or competitive. We began by cataloging the different components of an application for admission. We found three such criteria. Sorting criteria helped admissions officers manage a large volume of applications by making many candidates seem comparable via a unidimensional indicator (e.g., GPA, standardized test scores). Concertedly cultivated criteria (e.g., essays, interviews) highlighted the possibility of a “match” between the distinct person who applied and admissions personnel seeking to create a class. Ascribed status criteria acknowledged that admissions officers could consider attributes that might counteract (e.g., racially minoritized identity) or exacerbate (e.g., legacy status) existing social inequities.

We used data collected by Peterson’s from the 2007-2008 to the 2015-2016 academic years. These data indicated which criteria an admissions officer claimed were important when making a decision. In other words, the data we used did not directly illustrate what admissions officials did behind closed doors, only what they said they valued. These data nonetheless provided insight into how admissions officers presented and understood their work. We used latent class analysis to identify three different sieves that these admissions offices claimed to employ.

  • The Coarse Sieve placed a heavy emphasis on sorting criteria, low levels of emphasis on concertedly cultivated criteria, and almost no emphasis on ascribed status criteria. This was the smallest category (23% of cases). The majority of institutions that claimed to use a coarse sieve (61%) were public.
  • The Fine Sieve foregrounded concertedly cultivated criteria such as volunteering and extracurricular activities. Institutions in this group also gave the most attention to ascribed status criteria of whether applicants held a racially minoritized identity, were first-generation college attenders or were legacy applicants. This was the middle-sized category (27% of cases). A large majority of the institutions in this class(82%) were private.
  • The Double Sieve included elements of the two other sieves. Admissions officers claimed to value both high school GPA, a sorting criterion, and some evidence of concerted cultivation (essay, letters of recommendation) at the highest levels of any of the groups. This was the largest category (50%). Private institutions greatly outnumbered publics in this group (86% were private).

Membership in these three categories of admissions practices was remarkably stable over time. Only a few selective colleges or universities stopped using one sieve and took up another.

Next, we were interested in knowing what kinds of selective institutions claimed to employ which sieves. We used multinomial logistic regression to identify these relationships. We ran separate analyses for public and private institutions because these two sectors are funded and regulated differently.

Public institutions that employed the Fine or Double Sieve differed substantially from the majority that used a Coarse Sieve. Fine and Double Sieve institutions had higher levels of educational spending and were more likely to employ a no-loan policy. Fine and Double Sieve users also drew a smaller share of their student body from people identified as white and enrolled a lower percentage of Pell glass recipients than did Coarse Sieve institutions. In other words, public institutions that employed Fine or Double Sieves tended to be financially and demographically distinct from the bulk of public institutions. The Coarse Sieve was the most common (55%) class for public institutions, and only well-resourced and demographically distinct universities used one of the other techniques to select students.

Patterns among sampled private institutions were somewhat different. Private colleges and universities that employed a Fine or Double Sieve typically received fewer applications than those using the Coarse Sieve, suggesting that the latter category operated as expected (e.g., to manage large application volume) among private colleges. Fine and Double Sieve users also were more likely to belong to distinct institutional types—being classified as a liberal arts college or a research university—than were Coarse Sieve users. There were also contrasts between Fine and Double Sieve users. Institutions that claimed to employ a Double Sieve had higher educational spending than did the Coarse Sieve category, while the Fine and Coarse Sieve groups were indistinguishable.

In summary, we found that college admissions officers claim to make decisions in ways that link seemingly distinct criteria together into sieves that sort applicants. These sieves are in turn connected to other college and university characteristics including levels of spending, enrollment demographics and institutional type. On balance, the direction of these linkages indicates that fine-grained distinctions among applicants are increasingly important for high-stakes admissions decisions that determine access to the most prestigious institutions.

Selective college admissions are changing rapidly. The Supreme Court’s decision to sharply curtail the use of race-based affirmative action in admissions and the eventful rollout of the new Free Application for Federal Student Aid have shifted the terrain. Several states have gone farther still in their restrictions on administrative or educational attention to race, gender and other dimensions of inequity—part of broader efforts to deinstitutionalize public higher education. Finally, after years of seeming to be on the wane, standardized tests, which are perhaps the paradigmatic sorting criterion, appear to have made a comeback for the 2024-2025 admissions cycle among Ivy-plus institutions.

All of these events, along with others we cannot anticipate, mean that the empirical kernel of our findings could become obsolete. How people are sifted into or out of a selective higher education institution may change as the regulatory and financial environment changes.

Our underlying argument is therefore much more important than the details of our analyses. Sieves are linked to institutional characteristics, which in turn indicate how desirable admission opportunities are allocated. While the contours of these linkages may change, the underlying social relationships are unlikely to do so. After all, if a family is willing and able to invest time, money and effort into it, performance on both an interview and a standardized test can be coached. As a result, understanding how selective colleges and universities describe the process of allocating access to these high-value seats—that is, analyzing what their admissions officers claim to value in applicants—is an important step toward establishing a richer understanding of the role of selective colleges and universities in social inequality.


Barrett J. Taylor
Professor and Coordinator, Higher Education Program
University of North Texas

Kelly Rosinger
Associate Professor of Education and Public Policy
Pennsylvania State University

Karly S. Ford
Associate Professor of Education and Sociology
Pennsylvania State University

Read more:

Taylor, Barrett J., Kelly Rosinger and Karly S. Ford. 2024. “The Shape of the Sieve: Which Components of the Admissions Application Matter Most in Particular Institutional Contexts?”. Sociology of Education.

Taylor, Barrett J., and Brendan Cantwell. 2019. Unequal Higher Education: Wealth, Status, and Student Opportunity. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Rosinger, Kelly Ochs, Karly Sarita Ford, and Junghee Choi. 2021. “The Role of Selective College Admissions Criteria in Interrupting or Reproducing Racial and Economic Inequities.” The Journal of Higher Education 92(1): 31-55.

Image: Wessex Archaeology via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)