Heading into this fall’s college application cycle, words like “equity” and “access” are shaping conversations at admissions offices as each college works to enroll a more racially and socioeconomically diverse class. These efforts are laudable and needed if higher education is to better reflect American society and create pathways of success for traditionally underrepresented students. Unfortunately, though, college admissions is so steeped in a system that continues to favor the privileged that it is a mistake to assume that students are reviewed equally at the more selective colleges.
With test centers unexpectedly closed in 2020, colleges turned to test-optional admissions in unprecedented numbers. A resulting silver lining of the pandemic allowed for students to suddenly rethink their application plans. Application numbers soared at highly selective colleges, with record-breaking numbers across the country. Duke University reported an application increase of 25 percent, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was up 66 percent and Rice University rose 26 percent.
Whether it was an accurate perception or not, students now felt they had a better chance at gaining admission to a highly selective college, that they might be rewarded with a coveted spot without a 1500 SAT. And for some select and lucky students, it worked. On an individual basis, it could seem that one barrier to elite college admissions had been lifted, set in motion by a pandemic but defended in the name of access and equity.
In theory, test-optional admissions on a national scale could be a game changer. The SAT and ACT have long been criticized as unfair assessments due to concerns over racial bias and a correlation between higher scores and socioeconomic status. Creating pathways for students to gain entry to a college regardless of their ability to test well will be essential in building communities that prioritize enrolling communities from a variety of backgrounds. The problem, though, is the colleges’ decision to focus on the word “optional.” By its very definition, optional implies choice.
Obtaining a seat at an open test center is no longer a significant challenge, and it’s become evident that students from highly educated communities maintain the goal of obtaining an impressive score. Parents are concerned their kids will be overlooked if they don’t submit scores. Students believe their grade point averages are so strong that it would imply negative test results if they didn’t submit a score, as though the lack of score automatically means a hidden low score. Even at the height of the pandemic, when open test centers were few and far between, wealthier students were flying into more remote parts of the country to take an SAT or ACT at an open center. Well-resourced high schools were able to coordinate previously unscheduled in-school test days to ensure access to the exams prior to the fall deadlines. And all this was occurring as many students in underresourced communities had yet to return to in-person instruction.
In 2020, an SAT score, instead of slipping into the background as the pandemic could have allowed, became just another luxury item in a year that highlighted social inequities. High test scores often signal a student’s privilege and class. Hyperinvolved smart kids with strong grades, a whole roster of advanced classes and outstanding standardized test scores are hardly unique. As such, the generically successful are all looking for any possible way to distinguish themselves.
Metrics of impressive worth that can be included on their application are added. There’s an automatic gut reaction to seeing a 1540 SAT that can’t be discounted. Our society, including the professionals reviewing the applications, has been conditioned to be impressed by scores, and this bias still exists within the context of a test-optional review. So too is the bias colleges have toward admitting students around institutional priorities, such as a set number of full-pay students. Application readers can’t unsee a test score in the 98th percentile, nor can they unsee the historical college success of a particular high school or a parent’s impressive job title recorded on an application, all of which could indicate less need for financial aid. Students who have any of these blue-chip tags in their file have added value to their applications.
Fortunately for them, and unfortunately for those concerned about access and equity, they can further lean into privilege at many competitive colleges by signing an early-decision contract. When a student applies early decision, there is a signed agreement that indicates if the student is admitted to this one college, the family will make a financial deposit and rescind other applications. Half the schools in the Ivy League rely on the early-decision contract in building their incoming classes, as do many other institutions that regularly appear at the top of the popular ranking lists. It is becoming increasingly common for colleges that maintain early-decision contracts to fill 50 percent of their freshman classes with students who applied ED. For the Class of 2025, the numbers for this benchmark stood at 53 percent at Boston University, 50 percent at Tulane University, 49 percent at Dartmouth College and 50 percent at the University of Pennsylvania.
With more applications coming in the later regular-decision round and fewer seats left in the class, there is a significant advantage in applying early decision. Deciding how to strategize a student’s singular pick for the early-decision round becomes a major part of college-planning discussions in wealthier communities, often as much as jockeying for the best possible test score. Signing an early-decision contract tends to be an option for the very low income or the super wealthy.
Because of the net price calculators that are federally mandated on college websites, any prospective applicant can have parents put in tax info and get a ballpark for how much a particular college would cost that individual family. While elite colleges are able to provide the most generous financial aid packages to low-income students, it’s an unfortunate reality that these kids rarely attend high schools with counseling services that can help educate them about such opportunities and explain which colleges would truly be most affordable for them. Additionally, students from underresourced communities typically have not gone through an intentional planning process where they visit colleges and make an informed choice about their one top option ahead of the Nov. 1 senior year early-decision deadline.
With fewer low-income students taking advantage of the all-in early-decision option, the bulk of applicants in this first pool are typically from families who have the financial means to write a check for full tuition. Indeed, these are the well-educated and highly successful members of society who are eager to create entry points for their children to maintain similar lifestyles. These families often don’t care about comparing scholarship offers or financial aid packages. Rather, their goals center around getting their child into the most prestigious university possible given the child’s academic profile. Early decision is an intentional part of the college admissions plan for these families. “Reach” colleges, most especially institutions that are need aware as opposed to need blind, can move into grasp when a direct signal has been sent to the admissions office: if you accept my child, you will have an immediate financial commitment to tuition.
Finances dictate so much in society. While it would be ideal if educational institutions were immune from the pressures of capitalism, colleges are businesses with revenue streams and operating budgets. Since the inception of American higher education, starting with Harvard in 1636 and William & Mary in 1693, colleges have been tuition-driven institutions that cater to the wealthy. Pushing ahead 300-plus years, there is an entire industry that exists around college planning. Standardized testing and early-decision applications are just two of the many pieces of the college review that play into the imbalance of a system that favors the well resourced, and neither seems likely to disappear soon.
Two public universities, the University of Texas and Arizona State University, have made valiant attempts at breaking down socioeconomic barriers to college admissions even before 2020 brought equity and access to the forefront. UT guarantees general admission to in-state students who graduate in the top 6 percent of their Texas high school. Similarly, Arizona State’s on-campus program guarantees admission to students who have completed a prescribed set of courses and earned a set GPA, graduated in the top 25 percent of their class, or scored a benchmark ACT or SAT. As public institutions, these colleges have unique obligations to open access points for all students throughout their respective states, and the admissions policies they have created fulfill this purpose.
These models of setting a clear admissions criteria are refreshingly straightforward and stand in contrast to the more vague holistic review at many elite institutions. Texas and ASU can make their policies work, though, because the seats in their freshman classes are not as limited by the number of beds in the dorms, as is the case with many private colleges that put strong emphasis on the first-year residential experience.
Still, highly selective colleges could take a lesson from ASU and Texas if they truly wanted to be more inclusive and equitable. Each college could set its own criteria, put every kid who meets this benchmark into a pool and then draw from a lottery to award the winning students their seats in the class. This method leaves a lot to be desired, but it would serve as an equalizer at colleges when test-optional policies and early-decision contracts offer continued favor to wealthier students. The problem, though, is even this would fail to alleviate all the challenges of enrolling and supporting students from underrepresented communities. Institutional changes within college admissions that positively address issues around access and equity are bandages on a massive wound. Any blame put on the colleges for unfair and imbalanced admissions is coming 12 years too late in a child’s life. The unequal distribution of educational resources in our country means there must be an unequal college review of students if any attempt at equity can be preserved.
What if the conversation around college admissions didn’t have to address concerns over unfair practices due to a student’s socioeconomic status or racial background? What if, instead, educational opportunities were so equalized in the lower grades that when it came time for students to take the SATs, the scores didn’t show a discrepancy between ZIP codes? What if we could talk about keeping the bar of success in testing high for all students instead of taking the bar away altogether?
Equal access to excellent and evenly distributed educational opportunities, from pre-K to college, is imperative in investing in the future of our society and eventually allowing for equal review at the college level. Full-day kindergarten, required by law in fewer than 20 states, needs to be mandated across the nation. Advanced math classes in middle schools should not be implemented on a district-by-district basis, but rather should exist as a requirement for every accredited institution. The national average of 400-plus students for every one counselor in high schools must be lowered if there is any expectation of addressing individual barriers to success.
The pandemic has spurred the need for conversations around access and equity in college admissions because it revealed the unjust inequalities that exist, and always have existed, in the K-12 education system in our country. Until a student’s ZIP code and parental bank account aren’t the main factors in their academic success, colleges need to use different parameters to admit different students.
So yes, let’s celebrate as many entry points of access as possible, as these are needed services. But let’s also recognize the system has been full of barriers to access and equity long before a student even applies to college. The educational gap between communities means students from underresourced communities need more financial support to succeed at college. Programming around access and equity needs to be budgeted into colleges’ annual expenses.
A summer boot camp, one that is fully funded by the institution and targets students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, could do so much for student populations that have historically been likely to score lower on their SATs. However, programs like these, as opposed to test-optional admission, which isn’t even a line item on a budget, are expensive, and most colleges simply don’t fund them. There is an unspoken reality at selective private colleges, though, that full-pay students help create more financial support for programming that aids underresourced students.
With elite colleges continuing to review test scores and readily accepting early-decision contracts, students will continue to flaunt their socioeconomic status in applications, and this isn’t necessarily without benefits for all. When wealthier families are willing to go to such lengths to compete for a spot at a college, they reliably bring their money with them to the institution. Lower-income students have fewer options when scholarship and grant funding dries up at the college level. Given the expense of comprehensively supporting students from underresourced backgrounds, it’s not surprising that colleges have committed to maintaining test-optional admissions in the name of access and equity. It’s a free and easy policy to institute and does not have to be universally applied to applicants in an equal manner.
If lifting score requirements allows all-star students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds to find pathways into colleges, it needs to be maintained. If, though, students from well-resourced backgrounds think test optional has been designed to help them sneak into elite institutions, too, they had better re-evaluate their plans. High test scores remain a status symbol in wealthy communities, and flashing status has simply become a part of the college review. So, if a student’s high school offers a full roster of A courses and consistently reports a four-year college-bound population at 90 percent or higher, test optional means opt in and then sign an early-decision contract for good measure, too. Access and equity need to be worked out in the lower grades before we can focus on an equal review at the college level.