The Path to Fairness

By Jamaal Abdul-Alim


About a year after the Varsity Blues admission scandal, the University of Southern California (USC) announced plans to offer free tuition for undergraduate students from families that make $80,000 or less.

While some have dismissed this as a PR stunt, Robert Massa, vice president emeritus for enrollment and college relations at Dickinson College (PA) and a professor of higher education at USC, has a different take.

“While it may be true that many students from families with incomes under $80,000 [already] would have received financial aid that covered tuition, the real value of USC’s announcement is that it will capture the attention of more low and low-middle income students,” Massa said.

“Many at that income level simply would bypass USC because of its ‘list price,’” Massa explained. He said the guarantee of free tuition for students from families that make $80,000 or less is meant to encourage well-qualified, lower-income students to apply.

“The university is and has been strongly committed to access and inclusion and this is a clear demonstration of that commitment,” Massa said.

Despite the differing views about USC’s move, it’s one of the many ways that the admission scandal has prompted discussions about and actions to make college admission more fair and equitable.

Solutions that have been proffered include ending reliance on college entrance exams—something that actually ended up happening at many schools as a result of COVID-19. Others point to the need to increase access to college prep coursework, boosting the number of counselors in high schools, and offering more financial aid.

In interviews with an array of college admission experts, one theme that came up repeatedly was the need to make sure that any changes with the goal of fairness be driven by data and research. That work, several said, is a lot harder than just criticizing the pay-to-play culture that the college admission scandal brought to the fore.

“It’s a lot easier to accuse some group of institutions of causing a problem than to figure out what are the real problems,” said Sandy Baum, a senior fellow for the Center on Education Data and Policy at the Urban Institute and professor emerita of economics at Skidmore College (NY).

Baum said the admission scandal has put a misplaced focus on elite institutions such as USC.

“Most people who go to college, this is totally irrelevant for them,” Baum said of the admission scandal, noting that most students are concentrated at two-year colleges, for-profit colleges that take anyone with a high school diploma, or public four-year colleges with broad access.

“The share of students who go to institutions that take less than half of their applicants is very small,” Baum said. “I think it’s very important to recognize when we say, ‘What do you think about what USC does in terms of admission?’, it’s not that it’s not important. It’s just that it has nothing to do with most college students.”

The more critical issue is how a student even gets in the pool of applicants for a selective college. “I would say that the pre-college experiences, early childhood, K-12 education, access to health care, all those things, there’s so much inequality there, that there’s nothing that the selective colleges could do to make the system fair because such a large share of students, by the time they’re 18, there is no prayer, no matter what happens to the admission system, that they’re going to get in,” Baum said.

But others, such as OiYan Poon, an associate professor of higher education leadership in the School of Education at Colorado State University, still believe there’s reason to scrutinize how colleges are making decisions about which students to admit.

Poon is one of the people heading up the Hack the Gates initiative, which is meant to rethink how college admission is done. She says a major objective of the initiative is to marry research and practice.

“It’s so rare I think for people who are doing the work to be in conversation with people who are studying the work, which is unfortunate because I think the practice can inform analysis and analysis can inform the practice,” Poon said.

In January, a new study—by Elaine M. Allensworth and Kallie Clark, both of the University of Chicago (IL)—found that the ACT college entrance exam was a relatively weak predictor of college graduation. In contrast, the study found that a student’s high school GPA is a “strong and consistent” predictor of college graduation.

The most recent findings add to similar findings that have been mounting for years, said Akil Bello, senior director of advocacy and advancement at the National Center for Fair & Open Testing. The organization, referred to as FairTest, works to end the misuses and flaws of standardized testing and to ensure that evaluation of students, teachers, and schools is fair, open, valid, and educationally beneficial.

Although the latest findings are powerful, making use of the new study could be “tricky,” Bello said, “because the gap between research and policy is a chasm.”

“You never quite know what research is actually going to impact policy,” he continued. “I think the real value of (the new study) is contributing to mounting research that suggests that the institutions and organizations reconsider the faith that they’re placing on test scores.”

Tiffany Jones, senior director of higher education policy at The Education Trust, a nonprofit that advocates for low-income students and students of color, cited Wake Forest University (NC) as an example of a school that increased diversity after it went test-optional.

The school’s policy was credited with prompting a “dramatic” increase in minority representation on campus. In the first six years after the university went test-optional in 2009, the percentage of minority students on campus jumped from 12 percent to 16 percent—an impressive gain of 4 percentage points.

“Evidence like that suggests that going test-optional is somewhat promising and that it could lead to increases in racial diversity,” Jones said. (Read more about the effects of test-optional policies at Wake Forest and other universities.)

After COVID-19 hit, many of colleges and universities ended up scrapping college entrance exams altogether due to the difficulty of administering the exams amid the pandemic.

“This is about as fair as it gets,” said Massa. “Many students can’t take the test, so schools will not require them from anyone.

Massa continued: “I would predict, from the group of schools that recently announced a one-year test-optional policy due to COVID-19, that all but a handful of the most selective colleges in the country will adopt that policy permanently once they see its positive impact on the applicant pool and the student body.”

Beyond testing, Jones said college admission officers must do more than pay lip service to increasing diversity on campus. “It is important to change how they approach admission,” she said. “I think it’s problematic to show up in schools just to say you showed up at black and brown schools if you don’t plan on admitting any of the students.”

Jones also said more must be done to make college prep coursework more accessible.

While research shows that course-taking is a better predictor of student success than standardized tests, low-income students and students of color are less likely to take the Advanced Placement (AP) courses college admission officers look for in applications.

Jones cited a recent Education Trust report that found black and Latino students are successful when given the opportunity to take AP courses, but they are not being given access to the courses at equitable rates.

For instance, the report found that while black students make up 15 percent of students at schools with at least one AP course, they represent just 9 percent of those enrolled in AP courses. And while Latino students make up 24 percent of students enrolled in schools that offer at least one AP course, they represent just 21 percent of students enrolled in AP courses, the report found.

The report also found that nearly one in 10 high school students attend schools that don’t offer any AP courses. “That, in and of itself, is a problem,” the report states. “Another problem is that 1 in 4 high school students attend schools that do not offer a diverse range of Advanced Placement courses.”

“And if you attend a school that doesn’t offer it—your neighborhood school—you are being locked out,” Jones said. She also said there are issues of teachers not referring black and Latino students for advanced coursework.

Research has shown that educators sometimes harbor lower expectations for black students. For instance, a 2016 study found that “non-black teachers of black students have significantly lower expectations than do black teachers.”

“These effects are larger for black male students and math teachers,” states the study by Seth Gershenson, Stephen B. Holta, and Nicholas W. Papageorge, of American University (DC), the Institute for the Study of Labor, and Johns Hopkins University (MD), respectively.

At the University of Michigan, Awilda Rodriguez, assistant professor at the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education, is examining the role that teachers play in referring black and Latino students to AP courses.

“We know these biases exist,” Rodriguez said. “If you don’t think students are going to be college-bound, then you’re less likely to endorse them for college prep courses.”

Lack of adequate or effective counseling is another issue that affects college admission at the high school level.

“Nationally, in public high schools, the ratio is appalling,” said Marie Bigham, the founder of ACCEPT, a group of college admission professionals devoted to anti-racism, equity, and justice. Bigham also heads up the Hack the Gates initiative.

While the American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 1 counselor for every 250 students, the ratios in most states are much higher, with the national average at 1 to 442.

The ratio at private high schools is often much smaller. Plus, more affluent parents can afford to hire independent educational consultants to help with the college application process.

“You can’t say children are getting the same level of care or guidance,” Bigham said. “You can’t look at those two numbers and say, ‘Hey, I bet those kids in public schools are going to perform just as well as the kids getting that level of handholding.’”

Sara Urquidez, executive director of Academic Success Program, a Dallas, Texas-based nonprofit contracted to provide college advising in 15 Dallas public high schools, says it’s also important to ensure that counselors have adequate knowledge of how college admission works.

“We need highly trained experts to guide students through this process,” Urquidez said. “We don’t just need more bodies.”

Urquidez said one of the biggest problems she’s seen with high school guidance counselors is lack of knowledge on financial aid. “We just say, ‘Oh, you know, it’s sad it didn’t work out,’ and we move to the next class,” she said about students dropping out of college due to lack of financial aid.

As families across economic spectrum confront unemployment and loss of income amid the coronavirus crisis, experts worry that minority and low-income students will face even greater challenges accessing higher education, especially as the time students spend away from the classroom mounts.

NACAC and its members have responded by shifting their counseling operations online, organizing virtual college fairs, assisting students with financial aid appeals, and offering flexibility to applicants wherever possible, including through enrollment deposit waivers. And although the pandemic places even more challenges in front of already disadvantaged students, many in the profession are hopeful it, and the recent unrest over the nation’s racial disparities, has also laid the groundwork for systemic changes that could help level the playing field in the long run.

“For the past several weeks, we have seen colleges drop standardized-testing requirements, change enrollment deadlines, require fewer financial-aid documents, and cancel deposits,” Angel B. Pérez, NACAC’s incoming CEO, wrote in an op-ed published in May by The Chronicle of Higher Education. “My greatest hope for post-COVID-19 admissions is that we honor the simplicity and flexibility that colleges have created during the pandemic. Once institutions realize they can make informed decisions without making the process cumbersome, it could be a turning point for college access.”

Jamaal Abdul-Alim is a journalist living in Washington, DC.

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