Environmental Context: Not Just for Americans

Finding ways to help colleges better measure “distance travelled” with an eye to evening up admissions systems which are almost unavoidably tilted towards the children of the elite, seems like an awfully good idea. 

June 17, 2019

Last month, there was a storm of controversy in the United States with respect to a new initiative of the College Board know as the Environmental Context Dashboard.  The idea was to provide American colleges with some standardized information about the schools each of their applicants came from.  Using a relatively small number of census neighbourhood indicators (such as income, crime rates, etc) , the dashboard was meant to create an index of relative privilege or underprivilege, on a 1-100 scale.  The idea was that by helping admissions officers better understand where a student came from (the “distance travelled” as some call it), they would have a better idea as to how to judge that individual’s potential than they would by – say – just looking at their SAT scores (a test also administered by the College Board).

The initiative drew flak from both ends of the political spectrum.  For conservatives, who quickly redubbed the initiative as an “Adversity Score”, the idea that anything other than “individual merit” would be involved seemed absurd.  To the extent institutions needed to know about backgrounds, these could already be picked up through personal statements which are part of many American universities’ admissions process: anything else smacked of affirmative action (which to some degree it is in practice, though because race is not one of the X neighbourhood characteristics used, it does not violate any of the Supreme Court’s red lines on the subject).  For liberals, the idea that the College Board felt the need to help institutions contextualize applicants’ files, including the SAT, was itself an admission that the SAT was flawed and more a measure of privilege than merit.

Coming as it did on the heels of the “Varsity Blues” college admission scandal; foreign observers could perhaps be forgiven for rolling their eyes at the whole notion of American innovation in making access to higher education fairer.  But in fact, this particular innovation and the debate surrounding it is American policy-making at its best, and nearly every country in the world could benefit form something similar.

There are three basic problems in admissions to American colleges.  First, the country has enormous social inequalities which are accentuated by unequal provision of primary/secondary education.  Second, it has a highly stratified system of higher education, and those in the highest echelons of the system have a near-monopoly on top jobs (for more on this see Lauren Rivera’s excellent Pedigree: How Elite Students get Elite Jobs).  Third, the country is enormous: top colleges receive applications from thousands of schools: far more than they can possibly rate and assess on their own; hence the need for standardized measures to govern admissions.

But here’s the thing: America is hardly alone in this.  The UK, France, Japan and China all have similarly stratified systems of higher education which lead to stratified elite jobs, and which similarly attract applicants from across their large populations.  The initial social inequalities are perhaps not so large but they are not be far off it, either.   And these nations, like pretty much every country in the world except Canada and Norway, also use standardized testing to regulate admission to higher education.  The only difference is that in virtually all these other countries, the examinations are curriculum-based rather than psychometric as in the US (Sweden is the only other country which does this).

So how is America different?  Some might point to the extraordinary cost of its elite institutions and the tight connection between attendance and parental income/social background.  Certainly the price-point is unique, but again if you look at place like the UK, France, Japan and China you see similar patterns of top universities being stuffed with the children of the elite.  Indeed, self-perpetuation of elites through the education system is perhaps one of the very few constants across nations regardless of their economic and political systems (Martin Trombly’s Making the Soviet Intelligentsia: Universities and Intellectual Life under Stalin and Khrushchev is on how the mid-century Moscow Intelligentsia gamed to Soviet system in ways that might seem quite familiar to us)

But where America is different is the extraordinary amount of effort that goes into trying to kick back against these forces.  There is an enormous amount of energy spent both within institutions and within policy circles trying to think about ways to overcome these barriers.  As Natasha Warikoo pointed out in her excellent book The Diversity Bargain, one of the huge differences between Britain and America is that while elite universities in both understand the nature of inequality in society, only in the latter is there an understanding that they themselves have a responsibility to fix it.  At top UK institutions, educational inequality is quite simply someone else’s problem.

We see similar attitudes in much of the world.  In most countries, “fair access” is met with a shrug.  Everyone takes the same test (China’s gaokao, France’s baccalaureat, etc) – what could be fairer than that?  The idea that alternate measures need to be taken to ensure broad access to top institutions is extremely rare.  Ireland has an entrance scheme which re-weights test scores to favour students from disadvantaged backgrounds, France’s elite Sciences Po has a successful affirmative action scheme, and the UK has various policies in favour of “outreach” which never quite seem to amount to very much at elite institutions.  But apart from those rare instances, the overriding policy instinct across most of Europe and Asia with respect to widening access to elite institutions is: who cares?

In theory, of course, the United States and other countries would not have so much educational inequality in K-12, and they would not have a stratified university system which controls access to elite jobs and/or they would have routes to good jobs which are outside the higher education system.  In this respect, it would be great if America (and other countries) could more closely resemble, say, Canada or Germany.  The problem of course is that genuinely no one knows how to de-stratify a higher education system once it has been stratified.  It’s never been done, anywhere.

And so, in the meantime, finding ways to help colleges better measure “distance travelled”, with an eye to evening up admissions systems which are almost unavoidably (if international evidence is properly understood) tilted towards the children of the elite, seems like an awfully good idea.  And not just in America: an environmental dashboard would do wonders in places like France, Spain, and Russia (it would be good in China, too, but would never be allowed because of what it would reveal both about inequality and about universities).  The Environmental Context Dashboard is not without its imperfections; but it’s still a tool that could lead to better outcomes in many different circumstances.


Alex Usher is president of Higher Education Strategy Associates in Toronto, Canada.



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