Hyde Park campus, University of Chicago map sign.
Jeff Greenberg—UIG via Getty Images
By Sara Garcia
June 22, 2018

For decades, standardized tests have served as the gatekeeper of opportunity for high school students across the country. At the same time, these tests—the SAT and ACT—are a notable example of the many structural barriers students from disadvantaged backgrounds face throughout their secondary education. So The University of Chicago’s recent decision to go “test-optional” is a laudable move to give deserving students a fair shot at admission.

While over 1,000 colleges have stopped requiring standardized tests, The University of Chicago is the first highly selective, top-10 research institution to do so. Other elite colleges should look to this move as an example of a way they can better reflect the economic and racial diversity of this nation through the admissions process.

While the SAT and ACT were intended to measure academic ability and potential, in practice, they are actually better measures of wealth and racial inequality. Students of color tend to perform worse on these exams due to systemic disadvantages they face from birth. For example, students of color are more likely to receive lower quality pre-school education, which can harm later learning and outcomes. They are also overrepresented in segregated and underfunded K-12 schools that lack the resources to adequately prepare them for assessments like the SAT or ACT. Finally, students of color are more likely to come from families with lower amounts of wealth, which inhibit their ability to afford the high price tags of private tutors or prep courses that could help boost their scores.

All this means that more than ability, it is a student’s zip code that ultimately defines their future.

Removing these exams as a requirement for admission will open the doors of opportunity to a more diverse student body. Highly capable students who, because of factors beyond their control, have SAT or ACT scores that do not reflect their academic potential will be more likely to apply given the scores are no longer a requirement. In fact, recent research found that less-selective institutions that went test-optional saw an uptick in socioeconomic and racial diversity amongst their applicants and admitted students.

But more selective and competitive institutions, like The University of Chicago, will need to go further to achieve similar gains in diversity.

Top-tier institutions will need to take intentional steps to ensure they are recruiting students from high and low-poverty school systems. In addition, colleges will need to continually evaluate their systems of admissions and eliminate admissions practices that work against students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

For example, colleges and universities should consider putting an end to early-decision practices, which give preference to students who commit to attending before knowing what financial aid is available to them—which favors wealthier students over those who require greater amounts of financial aid.

In addition, favoring students who take high numbers of advanced placement (AP) courses, or are involved in extra-curricular activities that require travel or funds, such as debate, band, or club sports, can severely limit diversity efforts. Instead, colleges can look for equivalent metrics of success for school systems that cannot afford to provide advanced courses or after-school services when considering students from high-poverty school districts for admission.

Likewise, elite colleges can stop giving preference to children of alumni, known as legacy applicants, which precludes students from disadvantaged backgrounds to remain competitive in a system that heavily rewards privilege over potential.

 

Interestingly, The University of Chicago claims to not favor legacy status, and in its recent announcement, committed to providing free tuition for families that make below $125,000. In combination with the test-optional policy, that should, in theory, also help boost the diversity of their future applicant pool. But only time will tell how much the university will increase their enrollment of low-income students and students of color because of these policy changes.

Only when we have a system that values every aspect of a student’s potential, rather than one that rewards or penalizes them based on their zip code, will we have a higher education system that truly mirrors the diversity of the nation.

Sara Garcia is a policy analyst for Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress.

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