Matt's Past SAT/ACT News Update

Matt O'Connor

Feb 28, 2020

Liz Willen of The Hechinger Report has written an article taking a detailed look at the aftermath of the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal. The author wonders if the rhetoric that significant changes need to be adopted in the admissions process will result in any real change:

…now that bribes, lies and cheating schemes in the so-called Varsity Blues scandal have landed famous actresses, coaches and parents in prison, there are new cries for transparency about the role money, privilege and connections play in determining who gets in.

Last week, a host of ideas emerged during a conference sponsored in part by the University of Southern California, ground zero for bad admissions behavior. I listened carefully, wondering how and if anything will ever change.

I’m not holding my breath.

“It’s understandable that the public views college and admission with skeptical eyes,” said Robert J. Massa, a longtime enrollment specialist who now teaches at USC’s Rossier School of Education. Massa was among the higher education leaders pushing for new ways of fixing the system and restoring trust. They tossed around ideas like increasing enrollment at selective colleges and creating non-negotiable firewalls between admissions and development directors.

Even after the Varsity Blues scandal, the public may never learn how and why decisions are made at selective schools that give a leg up to donors, athletes and legacies – by some estimates these advantages double or quadruple an applicant’s chances of admission. Nor may they receive an explanation for why so much merit aid continues to be doled out to middle- and upper-class students, and why admissions had been so easily – and cynically – manipulated.

In the face of such unfairness, it’s helpful to remember that higher education has always been a business, with admissions officers at selective schools beholden to trustees, wealthy alumni, college rankings – and, in many cases, ability to pay. There’s a great explainer in journalist Paul Tough’s new book, “The Years That Matter Most,” on the pressure for enrollment managers “to admit a lot of rich kids who can afford full price.” At USC, the estimated annual total cost of attendance without aid is upwards of $77,000.

“Most colleges don’t act within the best interest of the student – the driving force of the discussion is not ‘what’s the altruistic thing to do?” said Don Hossler, a senior scholar at USC who formerly headed student enrollment services at Indiana University-Bloomington.

Disillusionment with higher education has been growing not only because of the Varsity Blues scandal but also due to fears over escalating tuition and unmanageable debt loads. Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council of Education, spoke about the doubt and dissatisfaction expressed during focus groups his organization convened around the country.

“We kept hearing, you don’t need to go to college, college isn’t for us,” Mitchell said. “We heard this from people over and over, across red, blue and urban lines. We heard that [college admissions] is a game they couldn’t play, it wasn’t real, they were at a disadvantage” if they weren’t athletes or couldn’t afford essay coaching, SAT tutors and private counselors.

But for real change to happen, elite schools have to be willing to admit more students from disadvantaged backgrounds, warned Catharine “Cappy” Bond Hill, managing director of Ithaka S + R, a nonprofit consulting group. As president of Vassar, Bond Hill doubled financial aid and pushed hard to admit more low-income students. “We have to change the stories by changing our behavior, but if more schools aren’t taking low-income students, it is irrelevant,” she said.

As reported by US News, Presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg has stated that he favors ending legacy preference in the college admissions process.

Democratic presidential candidate and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg pledged Tuesday to eliminate legacy preferences in college and university admissions if elected president.

"I will make the application process fairer, by working to end legacy preference in admissions, so that genes no longer take precedence over grades," Bloomberg said in a statement.

The pitch – though just one line in a much more comprehensive college affordability plan – sets Bloomberg apart from the rest of the Democratic presidential candidates by taking direct aim at a policy that many say has long perpetuated inequality in higher education.

Colleges and universities that have legacy admissions policies in place give extra weight to applicants who have relatives who previously graduated from the school, a boost that experts say is like adding up to 160 points to an applicant's SAT score and makes some students three times more likely to gain admittance. At elite schools across the country, the benefit is almost entirely heaped on white students from wealthy families whose parents and/or grandparents attended the school, giving advantage to already advantaged applicants and making it harder for low-income, middle-income and first-generation students to break through.

Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed notes the adoption of test optional policies by 4 additional colleges.


Four more colleges have adopted test-optional admissions policies in the last two weeks:

---Bellarmine University is going test optional except for those who were homeschooled or international students who didn't speak English growing up.
---Clarkson College in Nebraska is going completely test optional.
---Suffolk University announced that it would be completely test optional except for those who were homeschooled or educated in nontraditional settings.
---University of St. Thomas in Minnesota is going completely test optional.

St. Bonaventure University has also announced the adoption of a test optional policy.

WSHU Public Radio offers an audio interview with several key figures in the standardized testing opt-out movement, who have written a book titled Opting Out: The Story of the Parents’ Grassroots Movement to Achieve Whole-Child Public Schools.