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Almost daily an article appears that focuses on equitable access to postsecondary education. Most of these articles use admissions test scores as a key part of their analysis of equitable admissions. Similarly, critiques of the concept of merit as it applies to access to four-year colleges and universities continue to appear. They call our attention to inequalities in access to four-year colleges across a range of selectivity, while at the same time tests are being criticized as not being good measures of merit.

There are three important strands of research and policy dialogue that have shaped our focus on issues of equity in four-year college admissions:

  1. How do the background characteristics of students, including academic ability (most often as measured by test scores), influence whether students enter college and the selectivity levels of the institutions to which they have enrolled?
  2. What do we know about the college knowledge that low-income and first-generation students possess, and how does this influence if and where they enroll?
  3. Finally, an important question that is continuously asked, how do college costs and financial aid influence if and where students enroll?

Going forward we will likely be able to ask just two of these three questions.

Without formal notice, we are losing one of the most important measures used to examine equity in college access. Many of us concerned about postsecondary access have missed the confluence and importance of the rapid movement from test-optional policies to, because of COVID-19, to test blind. Moreover, changes in the influential University of California system will accentuate the movement toward test-blind college admissions. As a result, all the established indicators of equity that have used Pell Grant eligibility, race and test scores will need a new standardized indicator of ability to succeed in college. This will commence for the high school Class of 2021.

Furthermore, the loss of test scores in the admissions process will result in admissions decisions that will be substantially less transparent than they have been in the past. Test-blind admissions inevitably will lead to the use of holistic review in admissions offices. While this essay is not an argument for the use of test scores, we must acknowledge that test scores have played an important role in helping prospective students better understand where students like them are admitted. In this case, that refers to a standardized measure of academic performance -- test scores, which have been the only standardized metric to which students and parents had access. Going forward neither students, families nor college counselors will know how academic abilities have been measured and have influenced where students are admitted. Ranking schemes, college guidebooks and other sources may use high school grades or ratings of the rigor of high school courses completed, or completing an IB curriculum, for example, but questions regarding the quality of individual high schools will raise serious questions about the validity of such measures.

Admission to four-year colleges has never been transparent. As the selectivity of the institution increases, the opacity of the admissions process is intensified. My colleagues and I at the Center for Enrollment Research Policy and Practice at the University of Southern California recently completed a study of test-optional admissions policies and holistic review. We found that every institution in our study used different criteria and processes to make their admissions decisions. Not only will low- and moderate-income students not understand the rules of the game, but the process will become less transparent to all students. This should give all of us pause. We do not know how these changes will affect prospective students’ decisions about where they will apply -- and where they will feel comfortable aspiring to attend. A review of top research journals reveals few studies on this topic -- we are flying blind.

All of this is taking place at the same time that our definitions of merit are being questioned. A spate of recent books have been published, including The Tyranny Of Merit, The Merit Myth and The Meritocracy Trap, that examine the notion of merit as applied to college admissions. Demographic changes underway in the United States make it clear that unequal access to four-year colleges and universities will be accentuated if we do not create new definitions of merit that lend transparency to college admissions.

When the SAT and ACT tests were created, they were intended to identify talent and to broaden access to the leading colleges and universities in the United States. All of this was taking place post-World War II and the wave of massification of our higher education system that was taking place as GIs and then baby boomers entered our colleges and universities. However, advocates of these tests did not anticipate the extent to which the competition to be admitted to selective colleges and universities would increase. They did not anticipate the extent to which affluent families would make every effort they could to ensure that their children were admitted to elite institutions. In the 1950s, '60s and '70s Harvard, Stanford and Yale Universities were selective, but it was not as hard to gain admission. During these decades, these institutions admitted approximately one-third of their applicants. Fast-forward to today, and some of these institutions only admit approximately 5 percent of all applicants.

Our new definitions of merit must include those students who have not had access to the best private and public high schools in the United States, nor access to a wide range of books, museums, travel and other measures of cultural capital. Our definition must also include students who have not been able to afford test prep nor to hire private counselors to enhance their applications to holistic review processes and students who have never heard of early-admission programs.

Our four-year colleges and universities, as well as researchers, policy analysts and policy makers, are going to need to rethink how merit will be defined. In an era of holistic review, this is no small task. For the high school graduating Class of 2021, admissions tests will no longer be available for colleges to discover talent, or to study undermatching. However flawed, tests will no longer be available to provide an imprecise sense of intellectual fit. We will need a new measure of academic merit, of the ability of students to be successful, that can be used along with Pell Grant status and race to study equitable access to colleges and universities. It will need to be a standardized metric if we are to study equitable college access. Without a standardized metric, college admissions will become less transparent at the very time when the calls for more transparency are increasing. Those of us in higher education that care about equity need to consider these issues -- now.

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