comments_image Comments

4 Ways College Admissions Committees Stack the Deck in Favor of Already Privileged Applicants

It's time to stop stigmatizing affirmative action as an "unfair advantage" for historically unrepresented groups.

Continued from previous page


2. SAT Scores

It’s a well-known truism that the Scholastic Aptitude Test is a racist tool for college admissions. It’s also the first thing most admissions committees see on a student’s application.

The test’s racist reputation extends to its origins. Its creator, psychologist Carl C. Brigham, was a well-known eugenicist; his 1923 Army Alpha Test, first adapted as the Standard Aptitude Test for Harvard admissions in 1934, culminated in a racial breakdown of scores. Brigham felt that American education was in a downward spiral and argued that deterioration in American intelligence would “proceed with an accelerating rate as the racial mixture becomes more and more extensive.” 

Of course, standardized testing did not have only reactionary proponents in its early incarnations. It was first taken up by universities to create a more meritocratic – and less legacy-based – admission system. But it hasn’t shaken out in such a meritocratic way. For example, students from relatively well-off families can take expensive courses through private companies like Kaplan and the Princeton Review to learn tricks for boosting their SAT scores. Kaplan’s most popular 18-hour course costs $599. At Princeton Review, courses range from $299 to $1999.

Studies still find that SAT scores discriminate against minorities and women – and do a poor job of forecasting future student performance. According to the non-profit advocacy group Fair Test, women score an average of 35-40 points lower than men on the SAT --despite earning overwhelmingly higher first year grades once enrolled in college. For non-native English speakers, test scores are about 91 points lower despite first-year grades equivalent to those of white native English speakers.

Finally, according to Fair Test’s Web site, “The ability of SAT I scores to predict freshman grades, undergraduate class rank, college graduation rates, and attainment of a graduate degree is weaker for African-American students than for whites.” The SAT has become such a rite of passage in US culture that its biases are rarely discussed. But, in fact, it disproportionately favors white male students, while putting equally deserving female students and students of color at a comparative disadvantage.

3. Parental Income

When I was applying to colleges from my home state of North Carolina in 1997, many of my peers chose not to apply to Duke University, believing that their parents’ middle-class income would be found wanting and prevent them from being admitted, given that Duke was not, at the time, a “need-blind” university. In those days, students were widely under the impression that they were required to list parental income and assets directly on the Duke application. Duke’s dean of undergraduate admissions, Christopher Guttentag, tells AlterNet that the policy was gone by at least 1992, when his tenure began. But the recent history of “need-aware” admissions at Duke helped create today’s deeply entrenched beliefs in urban North Carolina communities that Duke is a school for the children of wealthy parents.

Of course, any U.S. citizen who requires financial aid to attend college completes a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (or FAFSA) that includes similar information about parental income. When a college has a need-aware policy, this means that students from relatively well-off families – that is, families who may be able to pay close to full tuition -- could be privileged when it comes to the admissions game. In order to become need-blind (and forgo the need to weigh a student’s ability to pay for her or his education),  a school needs to have a way of funding the students it admits. This means need-blind policies will always be at risk during difficult economic times, and students in need always vulnerable to economic forces beyond their control.