Much Work to Be Done

Promoting fairness in admissions must mean more than killing the SAT, writes Anthony P. Carnevale.

August 3, 2020
 
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The SAT and ACT are on the retreat. More than 1,000 colleges have gone test optional, the University of California decided to suspend use of standardized test scores in evaluating applicants and, in a final blow, most students were not able to sit for the exams this spring and summer because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, almost every college is test optional for this fall’s admissions season.

The elimination of the standardized test as a requirement for college admission is a welcome development for many reasons. The intent of standardized tests may seem sensible -- students from all over the country take the same test at the same time, and those who score the highest theoretically have the most merit. But in reality, the tests are strongly biased in favor of wealthy white test takers, and they are poor predictors of college success. The tests have given colleges a pseudo-scientific cover for weeding out students they didn’t want to enroll anyway.

But the celebration over the demise of these despised tests is premature. Even if standardized tests disappear altogether, colleges won’t magically start serving a more representative swath of the public. Colleges are still businesses, and the business model hasn’t changed: the most selective colleges still depend on appealing to the elite upper slice of American society.

The use of SAT scores as a gatekeeper has always been something of a false flag. Colleges play homage to them but then work around them. For example, colleges brag about the median standardized test scores of their admitted students, and imply that applicants never had a chance unless they got at least a minimum score near the very top. But that is not true. If the most selective colleges only admitted students with the highest SAT scores, more than half of the students now attending them would have to leave.

That is because these colleges turn aside promising students with high scores in favor of lower-scoring athletes, legacy students and wealthy students who can afford to pay full tuition.

Many colleges have announced in recent years that they are going test optional to attract more diverse applicants. But that is not necessarily what happens. Studies show that a number of colleges have gotten even more selective since going test optional. Here’s why: students with lower test scores tend not to submit them. So when only students with high test scores are submitting them, the average score goes up. Yes, these colleges are getting more applications from low-income students and members of minority groups, who tend to score lower on standardized tests, but there is scant evidence that they are attending these colleges.

If we are to break down the walls of these colleges and give more opportunity to equally talented young women and men who are handicapped by their lack of wealth and connections, we will have to take more steps than just eliminating standardized tests.

We need to prohibit colleges from favoring legacy students. The sons and daughters of previous graduates from elite colleges are loyal to their parents' alma maters. Families with multiple generations of students attending a single institution are more likely to give large sums of money to the college, further enhancing its ability to offer a first-class education. Also, the family bonds of graduates, elite colleges argue, create an enviable sense of community that surrounds the colleges. But on balance, the costs outweigh the gains. What legacy admissions accomplish more than anything is the cementing of an aristocracy in American society.

Colleges must be required to admit more low-income students. As elite colleges fill what they consider their obligation to admit the wealthy and connected, they salve their guilt by admitting a few low-income students. But not nearly enough of them. At about one-third of the nation’s 500 most selective colleges, less than 20 percent of students receive a Pell Grant, a federal program for low-income students. That is a shockingly low proportion when close to 40 percent of all college students get a Pell Grant. If every college assured that at least 20 percent of their incoming students were Pell-eligible, another 72,000 students every year would gain access to a high-quality college education.

Reward strivers. Our society is full of people who are wealthy because of the circumstances of their parents rather than necessarily through hard work of their own. Many of these trust-fund babies people the halls of our most elite colleges. Their spots are the expected reward of their station in the social milieu. These colleges should shake off this fusty old-money approach and look for diamonds in the rough, students who have achieved far beyond what their upbringings suggest they would have achieved.

Use class-based and race-based affirmative action. Courts have struck down strict quotas for college admissions based on race but continued to allow affirmative action as one tool in a strategy for diversifying college admissions. Colleges should expand this effort by also considering a student’s socioeconomic status in giving holistic review to applicants. Few students of lesser means even apply to selective colleges, figuring there is no way they can afford it. These colleges are often very generous in financial aid, promising free rides to low-income students. However, since most of their students are wealthy, they rarely have to follow through on those promises. Let’s change that.

We aren’t calling for the dissolution of America’s top colleges. The quality of education and the seeding of deep thinking and leadership that take place there are among the nation’s greatest assets. But these colleges are stuck in a rut, offering their coveted educations to, by and large, the same students from the same slice of society, year after year. America does not progress when progress is limited to only a select few. It divides instead and breeds class resentment.

The shell game of standardized testing has been exposed and is in retreat. But let’s not cheer for too long. There are many more shells we must turn over in our attempt to make American higher education work equally well for everyone.

Bio

Anthony P. Carnevale is director and research professor of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce and co-author of The Merit Myth: How Our Colleges Favor the Rich and Divide America (New Press), released earlier this year. Between 1996 and 2006, Carnevale served as vice president for public leadership at the Educational Testing Service.

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