Arlington, VA (January 19, 2022) — The impediments to racial equity in college admission and financial aid are complex, systemic, and longstanding, and so the work to dismantle those impediments requires courage, collaboration, creativity, and an unrelenting commitment to both understand the problems and continue to strive to solve them.
So says a new report out today from the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) and the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), the result of a months-long project funded by Lumina Foundation that sought to reimagine college admission and financial aid through an equity lens. The report recommends a series of actions for admission and financial aid practitioners, educational institutions, and state and federal agencies and policymakers. And it urges further, deeper study and examination of issues that create barriers to entry to postsecondary education for traditional-aged and adult students of color, particularly Black students. In focusing on advancing equity in college admission for Black students, the report acknowledges the legacy of discrimination and the ongoing effects of structural barriers against Black Americans throughout society that continue to limit postsecondary educational opportunity for Black students.
The project, which began in earnest in the spring of 2021, grew from ongoing efforts by NACAC and NASFAA to advance equity and was spurred by the tumult of the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial reckoning in the summer of 2020 that compelled individuals and institutions in all sectors to examine their roles in perpetuating inequities and their responsibilities for advancing justice.
The report, “Toward a More Equitable Future for Postsecondary Access,” challenges us all to consider how to design admission and financial aid systems that are equitable. NACAC and NASFAA hired Hearken Consulting to facilitate the project, which engaged a Thought Leadership Panel of experts and higher education professionals—whose members are listed in the full report—and conducted interviews with both traditional college-age students and adult learners, whose voices greatly informed the report’s recommendations.
The report recommends actions aimed at:
- Counteracting the negative effects of institutional selectivity on racial equity
- Reducing the complexity of processes for applying to schools and applying for federal financial aid
- Re-centering the student K-12 educational experience in admission decision-making criteria
- Diversifying admission offices
- Combating implicit biases in financial aid offices
Even as it recommends such actions, the report asserts the critical importance of institutional context in implementing changes to advance equity. Recent years have seen advocacy to change or eliminate practices and policies related to, for example, legacy admission, early admission, and the use of standardized test scores and other inequitable indicators of student potential. While there is merit in addressing those and other specific issues, the report emphasizes the need to center students in a comprehensive, big-picture examination of postsecondary admission and financial aid—to address the root causes of inequity rather than treat individual symptoms.
The report’s ambitious aims, in turn, live in the larger framework of questions that it urges higher education to ask of itself, questions that follow from a full-throated articulation of inequities that are not merely incidental, but rather are often inherent in the very design of postsecondary admission and financial aid systems.
“The college admission profession is rooted in a history and in systems that have disadvantaged the most marginalized students in our society,” said Angel B. Pérez, chief executive officer of NACAC. “We must reckon with that history and begin to tackle the bigger issues that affect who has access.”
Pérez said the solutions go far beyond changes that individual admission offices can make. “College admission officers do not function in a silo and are often limited in the impact they can have in creating greater access for the most marginalized students. Until we address how higher education is funded in America, the complexity of the financial aid process, the tools we use to evaluate students, and the investments we make in the admissions professionals doing the work, we will make incremental progress at best. Our time is now, and this report has identified the issues and given us a path forward.”
NACAC is reorienting its entire advocacy agenda toward student- and equity-centered admission practices. And it is continuing to engage partners in research aimed at understanding and addressing systemic inequities.
“Financial aid professionals are driven by a deeply held belief that no qualified student should be denied access to postsecondary education for lack of money. It is that belief that drives us to look inward at hidden biases that may be embedded in institutional policies that could negatively impact historically marginalized students,” said NASFAA President Justin Draeger. “We have the tools at our disposal to push for a more equitable playing field for all college students, but it must start with the willingness of institutional leaders and policymakers to lean into the sometimes-uncomfortable situation of exploring and ensuring that policies align with our values.”
Key questions and recommendations are highlighted below.
The full set of recommendations can be found in the complete report.
How do we reconcile selectivity with equity?
College admission is a process that relies on an inequitable set of inputs and in many cases is designed to exclude large numbers of highly qualified students. Institutional pursuit of prestige—including efforts to raise one’s standing in college rankings—increases pressure for exclusivity, and those institutions that are the most exclusive exert outsized influence on policy, practice, and the national conversation about college admission. To combat these issues:
- Admission offices should rethink selectivity in the context of their institutions, looking for ways to achieve the purposes of selective admission policies while minimizing racial bias in the process. Institutions without selective admission policies should explore new ways to characterize their processes—as entry or enrollment rather than admission, for instance.
- Institutions, meanwhile, should ask themselves whether their acceptance rates align with their values, mission, and their stated efforts to achieve racial equity.
- More broadly, policymakers should question whether public institutions should be selective, and on what basis, to minimize racial bias in selecting students.
- Public institutions should develop policies that facilitate admission of all in-state students who meet entry criteria.
How can we reduce the complexity of application and financial aid processes?
The process of applying to college compounds inequities by virtue of its complexity. Uneven levels of college-related knowledge—terminology and processes specific to postsecondary education—and access to college guidance are barriers that disproportionately affect students of color and adult students. Application fees, which average $50 nationally and $77 for the most highly selective colleges, present yet another barrier and a financial burden disproportionately affecting Black and Hispanic students (Black and Hispanic populations in the U.S. are overrepresented among those in poverty relative to their representation in the overall population). To advance equity within the application process:
- Admission offices should work with K-12 schools, students, and others to streamline and automate the transfer of information once a student indicates interest in an institution.
- Application fees should be reduced or eliminated, and fee waivers should be widely available and easy for students to see and obtain.
- Colleges and universities should assist in the professional development of college advisors and school counselors.
- State and federal policymakers and agencies should look to develop an application infrastructure to facilitate automated student records transfer, and they should invest in hiring and training school counselors and college advisors to address disparate needs.
For students who seek federal financial aid, the path to postsecondary education grows considerably more complex, including the required completion of the long and daunting Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the time-consuming hurdle of FAFSA verification for the millions whom the Department of Education selects each year to undergo this additional step. The federal government recently approved a set of changes to simplify the FAFSA and expand eligibility for the Pell Grant award, though many of the changes won’t take effect until award year 2024-25. Meanwhile, proposals to eliminate the FAFSA completely and simply rely on the federal tax form to determine aid eligibility demonstrate necessarily bold thinking that should continue as we strive toward equity. The report details several specific recommendations aimed at simplifying and improving the financial aid application process, including:
- Making sure students and families are aware of the October 1 availability date of the FAFSA (to provide as much time as possible to complete it)
- Prohibiting unwarranted use of student and parent FAFSA data
- Codifying into law the October 1 release of the FAFSA
How might we re-center the educational experience in evaluating applicants?
A student’s educational body of work is, and should be, the most important factor in the decision to admit a student. Evaluation of that body of work isn’t straightforward from an equity standpoint, though, given flaws inherent in grading systems, the degree to which such systems are themselves subject to the influence of systemic racism, and differential access to courses—which constitutes a barrier that disproportionately affects students of color. Federal data shows, for instance, that Black and Latino students have less access to high-level math and science courses.
Meanwhile, evaluation criteria beyond the educational experience, including standard testing, can perpetuate privilege, erect additional financial barriers, and create perceptions among students that they must put their trauma on display or prove their hardship—through essays, interviews, and other extracurricular means. To design for equity requires a radical rethinking of the criteria upon which admission decisions are based:
- Admission offices should re-center the evaluation process on the array of strengths, skills, and abilities students demonstrate during their K-12 educational experience, and they should seek more contextual methods for evaluating them while considering the racial contexts students experience.
- Admission offices should minimize or eliminate external assessments and requirements that create barriers that disproportionately affect students of color.
- Institutions must support the redesign of application and admission processes, which takes time and thoughtfulness.
- States whose public institutions require standardized test scores should consider removing those requirements to allow institutions to incorporate more equitable metrics into their admission decisions.
A Note about Public Investment in Higher Education
The NACAC-NASFAA report asserts recommendations for practitioners, institutions, and policymakers alike, understanding that the problems of inequity cannot be overcome by pursuing solutions along a single path. In turn, a broader context that also must be addressed is the financial one, namely the public disinvestment in higher education that greatly hampers efforts to advance equity.
As public universities have responded to state cuts in general appropriations by cutting their own budgets and raising tuition, they have had to prioritize students who can pay the most. This often means that high-achieving, low-income in-state students are neglected in favor of out-of-state students who can bring in more revenue. State appropriations differ by institution type, as well, exacerbating disparities between institutions and among the students they serve. Public disinvestment in postsecondary education connects directly to the systemic inequities we seek to address. Restoring the notion of higher education as a public good whose mission advances all of society is our collective responsibility, such that governments provide greater support for public universities and for students seeking postsecondary education.
Voices from the Thought Leadership Panel
Art Coleman, managing partner and co-founder of EducationCounsel, said one of the great strengths of the report is in its calling out—deeply and comprehensively—the complex, often institutionally embedded issues, including the tensions between equity and selectivity. “I see this as a resource for reflection and action,” he said. “I would hope it would be the kind of document that policy leaders would periodically review in light of new data as they aim for high-impact, legally sustainable pathways ahead.”
Daniel Barkowitz, assistant vice president for financial aid and veterans’ affairs at Valencia College in Orlando, Fla., said he plans to do just that, and to share the report widely, not only among his staff, but also with the campus community, both to build awareness of the complexity of issues and to implement the report’s recommendations.
Barkowitz said he’d like to see a cross-functional group like the thought leadership panel carry forward the report’s recommendations and assess progress. “There’s more work that we can do,” he said, noting the importance of continuing to foster collaboration among admissions and financial aid professionals, students, counselors, and other experts inside and outside higher education. “We can talk in silos, but until we talk together, systemic change isn’t going to happen.”
Stephanie McGencey, executive director of the American Youth Policy Forum, challenged NACAC and NASFAA to seek the input of many cross-sector groups in addressing the barriers to equity that were articulated in the report, and she urged individuals and institutions to think big. “If COVID has shown us anything, it’s that the way we’ve always done things doesn’t have to be the way we always do things,” she said. “We can no longer say with any credibility, ‘We can’t do that.’”
The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), founded in 1937, is an organization of more than 25,000 professionals from around the world dedicated to serving students as they make choices about pursuing postsecondary education. NACAC’s mission is to empower college admission counseling professionals through education, advocacy, and community.
The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) is a nonprofit membership organization representing more than 32,000 financial aid professionals at nearly 3,000 colleges, universities, and career schools across the country. NASFAA member institutions serve nine out of every 10 undergraduates in the United States. Based in Washington, DC, NASFAA is the only national association with a primary focus on student aid legislation, regulatory analysis, and training for financial aid administrators.
About Lumina Foundation
Lumina Foundation is an independent, private foundation in Indianapolis that is committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all. Lumina envisions a system that is easy to navigate, delivers fair results, and meets the nation’s need for talent through a broad range of credentials.