The Fundamental Attribution Error of Admission Test Policies

The funding model of higher education -- not test scores -- is the greatest barrier to college access, writes Joe Bagnoli.

August 12, 2021
 
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Since long before the pandemic, faculty, staff and administrators have debated the importance and consequences of an admission test requirement, most weighing the pros and cons for students and the institutions that serve them. Among the most popular objections to test requirements is that such policies are a barrier to access and student diversity at selective colleges -- they create impediments to admission among those underrepresented in higher education and result in fewer enrolled students of color, in particular. Consequently, colleges and universities should eliminate test requirements so that more of those students will apply, be selected, and choose to enroll.

In the recent Student Voice survey of 2,035 college students from Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse, which was presented by Kaplan, respondents across the board strongly support the removal of test score requirements in college admission processes. But dropping test scores may not help low-income and students of color as much as some might think. The biggest barrier to access is something seemingly unrelated to their enrollment -- the funding model of higher education.

Those who believe dropping test scores will create equality commit a fundamental attribution error: misassigning responsibility for low enrollments among students of color to an admission test requirement. … [R]ace is now a stronger predictor of test scores even than wealth.

Those who believe dropping test scores will create equality commit a fundamental attribution error: misassigning responsibility for low enrollments among students of color to an admission test requirement. Studies of test score distribution across socioeconomic variables have concluded that scores are reliable predictors of household wealth, and some analyses suggest that race is now a stronger predictor of test scores even than wealth. There is a straight-line relationship between household wealth and test scores. Generally speaking, the higher the wealth the higher the test score. This is why it is tempting to believe removing test scores from the admission equation would have the effect of opening a gate for lower-income students and diversifying the student population.

In my 30 years of work in higher education, the enrollment managers I have met are among the fairest and most decent people I know, and they are deeply committed to the principles of access and diversity in college admission. Many are also frustrated that diminishing government support, stagnant household income, stalled philanthropic activity, and the growing costs of education at their institutions translate to a loss of flexibility in the admission decision-making process.

Increasingly, at all but the most selective colleges and universities in the U.S., enrollment managers are confronted with the dilemma of serving ambitious goals related to access and diversity in a context of looming financial demands they are called upon to moderate. When I visit with my peers, they acknowledge it is not so much a test requirement that prevents the admission or enrollment of underrepresented students but rather the limits of what their colleges can afford in the discounting of tuition, upon which most are increasingly dependent for the cost of operation.

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The long tail of slavery and structural racism have resulted in lower household incomes for underrepresented domestic students of color that place the goals of diversity and access in a standoff with student revenue goals. This tension is harder and harder for enrollment managers to reconcile. When non-tuition funding resources can no longer keep up with the rising costs of education, enrollment managers are left to balance operational budgets through the admission of students from higher-income households who can shoulder a greater share of the costs without overextending the financial aid budget.

The hard truth is that most colleges cannot afford to meet 100 percent of the financial need of the students they admit today from low-to-moderate income households, much less an expanded group of students with financial need. As costs increase, so does the pressure on colleges to meet new financial obligations.

Next year’s assignment for enrollment managers at tuition-dependent colleges is to generate more net student revenue after financial aid than they did last year. What choice then is there but to recruit, admit, and attempt to enroll students from higher-income households (who are more often from white families)? When searching for colleges, affluent families convey tacit expectations of superlative amenities, yet sometimes complain about the increasing price of tuition to fund them. Their expectations of us to exceed what the competition offers and our collective inability to resist the temptation of sponsored excesses do not risk the exclusion of their prodigy. When we spend more than what is necessary to deliver excellence in education, we run the risk of leaving behind the students who are less capable of helping us balance our budgets.

Advocating for Change

Proponents of access and diversity in higher education should focus more of their attention on waning funding sources, calling attention to the fact that we have a painfully low tax base from which to support education as a percentage of GDP compared to other developed countries, and advocate for more creative pricing strategies. They might also challenge industry-wide inefficiencies, the arms race to brand building fueled by college rankings, and the less consequential institutional investments that drive up the cost of education without a meaningful impact on the student experience.

Student Voice explores higher education from the perspective of students, providing unique insights on their attitudes and opinions. Kaplan provides funding and insights to support Inside Higher Ed’s coverage of student polling data from College Pulse. Inside Higher Ed maintains editorial independence and full discretion over its coverage.

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These factors and growing operational budgets ultimately limit the capacity of admission officers to admit and provide financial aid to traditionally underrepresented students.

Critics seem convinced that admission test requirements are what keeps lower-income students -- including many students of color -- from gaining admission and adequate financial aid to support enrollment at the college of choice. If that were true, colleges that became test-optional years ago would be more diverse today. Even if we all become test-optional, if we do not solve the funding and cost challenges that lead our institutions to seek higher net revenue from students and their families, it is likely that an alternative apparatus that leaves behind students with financial need will replace test requirements.

Working at a college with a sizeable endowment that can support a no-loan policy to meet financial need is an enviable perch from which to make these observations. I worry, however, that my colleagues across the country, who are obligated to increase net student revenue at their institutions to make up for funding shortfalls of expanding operational budgets, will soon discover what enrollment managers at test-optional institutions have known for years: a test requirement is not the most formidable threat to access and student diversity in admission. That distinction belongs to the funding of higher education’s unsustainable cost structure.

Bio

Joe Bagnoli is vice president for enrollment and dean of admission and financial aid at Grinnell College, a need-blind institution that meets 100 percent of student financial need with no loans.

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