On College Admissions Practices

22 May 2019

The recent college admissions scandal involving wealthy parents and celebrities exposed the lengths that some affluent parents will go to in order to get their children admitted to selective colleges. Over a dozen parents are accused of bribing colleges to admit their children. The scandal also provokes questions about the college admissions process and the common practices used to decide who is admitted.

Jason England, former dean of admissions at an elite liberal arts university, provides some insider information about the admissions process and the “ideals and values that shape these processes.” England recounts what a colleague said at a college information session: “many rejected applicants are as deserving as those we accept,” a truth that England expands by writing that “there are duds attending Ivies and gems attending public universities.” This begs the question of what criteria do college admissions use when decided which students to admit. According to Carleton Educational Studies professor Jeff Snyder, who spent some time in admissions for a graduate program, deciding to admit a student can be as arbitrary as what the student has in common with someone on the admissions panel: “There was this one woman on the panel who looked at an application and said, ‘This girl does ballet, I like ballet–we should let her in.’” What does this say about all of the requirements colleges ask of applicants, like standardized testing scores? Do they matter?

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England claims that standardized test scores do not tell us much: “None of my personal or professional experience has legitimized the notion that an applicant with a 1440 is going to be a better classroom student or more worthwhile citizen than an applicant with a 1250.” Indeed, Andre Green, executive director of The National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest), gives his opinion in an article about the cost of taking the SAT and ACT: “the best way to measure someone’s work… is to look at their prior work. … So rather than trying to establish some crazy predictive which we know is a little biased, we should look at a students prior performance.” Green’s calling standardized testing a “crazy predictive” is supported by a recent study concluding that the “SAT may over- or underpredict first-year college grades of hundreds of thousands of students.” Combine this research with how haphazard some admission decisions can be and the conclusion that standardized testing is not necessary suddenly becomes a more logical one.

So, a world wherein colleges do not require standardized test scores: what would that look like? It might look a little like the University of New Hampshire (UNH), a recent college that has become one of the 1,000 colleges in the nation to make SAT scores optional during the admissions process. The university believes that standardized test scores are not treated as “the end-all admissions factor”; past achievements (read: transcripts) are. They also believe that no longer requiring students to submit SAT scores will “open doors for less-advantaged students and ease testing stress experienced by many high schoolers.” As someone who has jumped through the hoops of the college admissions process, I know how anxiety- and stress-inducing taking the SAT can be, but how standardized testing can be an obstacle for less-advantaged students can be less obvious.

There are several theories as to how standardized testing might hinder certain students from getting a good score. While some argue that the test questions themselves are biased in the way that they are written, others posit that because of the nature of our current education system, it is simply more likely that students from a lower socioeconomic status do not have access to the resources that would help them do better on the test. In other words, some students are born into financial capital and are thus able to buy services like tutoring for extra help in school or special classes to prepare for the SAT/ACT, giving them an advantage that lower-income students would not have. This has to do with something called cultural capital.

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Cultural capital is a term that sociologist Pierre Bourdieu used to refer to the “accumulation of knowledge, behaviors, and skills that one can tap into to demonstrate one’s cultural competence, and thus one’s social status or standing in society.” Everyone has different cultural capital; it’s not about how much you have, but what kind you have. Depending on where you are or who you are with, your cultural capital might be valued more or less. Cultural capital also has to do with how U.S. education can be separate and unequal. For instance, according to studies conducted by Child Trends, black children tend to do less literary activities (e.g., being read to, being taught letters, visiting a library) with family members. Black parents even have less expectations for the amount of education their children achieve than white parents do. These kinds of situational aspects that children grow up with is part of their cultural capital and the reason why some students can “do school” better than others: they have educational advantages.

The way our current system of education is set up, higher education can be highly inaccessible. Even with countermeasures like admissions lottery and making the submission of standardized test scores optional during the college application process, higher education is not equally accessible to everyone. But being aware of this can be valuable; this can help us Carleton students be more aware of our privilege as people in higher education and think about how we can use what we learn in a broader context, in the Carleton community, and beyond.

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