Commentary: What's less fair than the SAT? You might be surprised

·6 min read
Sather Tower at UC Berkeley.
Sather Tower at UC Berkeley. (Josh Edelson/For the Times)

The University of California is rightly concerned about making its student application process as equitable as possible, yet it’s clinging to part of the application that clearly benefits wealthy students.

Not the SAT. No, UC decided months ago to do away with all college entrance exams, despite the well-reasoned report from a faculty task force saying that a new and better test can and should be devised and that admission test scores are a better predictor of college success than grades. Critics of the SAT and its competitor, the ACT, pointed out that scores are closely tied to financial circumstances and family education. Among other things, more affluent students can afford private tutors and multiple test sittings to improve their scores. Add the rampant cheating in foreign countries, and you’ll find little to love about the giant testing organizations.

What UC inexplicably is holding on to, though, is the essay portion of its application, even though a 2021 report from Stanford University found that high-quality essays for UC applicants were even more tightly correlated with family income than the standardized tests.

That makes sense: Unless a parent pays someone to take the test for their child, an extremely rare event despite the Varsity Blues scandal, even high-level SAT tutoring is seldom going to increase scores dramatically. The student still has to know the material.

But essays can be and often are coached and polished by professionals — or just written by them. As a 2019 Times editorial pointed out in 2019: “In 2016, journalist Jia Tolentino wrote in the publication Jezebel about her years supporting herself by charging wealthy families $150 an hour to write or rewrite their teens’ essays.”

The SAT and ACT are the whipping boys of the moment, but some kind of admissions exam might actually be a helpful part of the application process. As California State University’s governing board indicates its intention to drop the SAT from the application process (unlike UC, Cal State does not require essays) and colleges throughout the country consider whether to make their pandemic pause on college entrance exams permanent, it’s time for higher-education leaders to avoid piecemeal demolition of unpopular admissions criteria and take a deep and comprehensive look at what it would take to revamp admissions and create a truly fair method for accepting or rejecting applicants.

Why, for example, do most selective colleges continue to provide an admissions bump for legacy applicants, those whose close relatives have attended the same school? (Both UC and Cal State have policies banning any advantage for legacy, though there have been a handful of improper admissions because of insider influence.) Legacy applicants benefit simply from being born into a connected family. Schools also haven’t gotten rid of the admissions advantage given for a wide range of sports that are played mostly by privileged white students and that bring no particular advantage to the wider school — think: fencing, golf, rowing. Spots are reserved for athletes well before colleges have even had a chance to review the academic records of other applicants.

Colleges have done almost nothing to stem the influence of high-priced private college admissions consultants whose fees can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. They should at least require students to attest that they prepared their applications without expensive assistance.

Li Cai, professor of advanced quantitative methodology at UCLA, was a member of the UC faculty committee that recommended creating a new admissions test. He told me that although grades have historically been a strong indicator of success in college, grade inflation is making that less true. And as universities begin relying more on “soft” qualities such as an applicant's volunteer work, essay or obstacles overcome, the admissions process becomes less transparent. If there’s one thing that worries and frustrates students and families about college applications, it’s not knowing what admissions officers want.

Essays are particularly frustrating. Some of the prompts seem almost designed to confuse or trick. "Where are you on your journey of engaging with or fighting for social justice?" one Tufts University prompt asks. What are students to say if they're completely absorbed in chemical research and have a job after school?

At minimum, colleges should consider accepting only essays that have been written in class and sent by the high school, to cut down on the rampant coaching that benefits students with financial means.

Cai says the newly redesigned SAT is a definite improvement on the old one — shorter, less stressful, taken online and highly resistant to cheating because each student receives a unique test. But it doesn’t overcome the key concern that tutoring for a high-stakes test gives some students an advantage — and it is true that when UC eliminated admission tests, the number of applications from underrepresented groups rose remarkably.

Many colleges across the nation that eliminated the SAT/ACT requirement during the pandemic will almost certainly want to return to some kind of entrance exam, Cai said — and education leaders will be looking to develop a fairer, more sophisticated version. From his viewpoint, California is ceding ground on developing that test, though it could have been a leader.

He envisions a test that engages students with creative online activities and allows them to show off their best individual skills. That could be problem-solving via a computer game, or designing something online and so forth. The tests could be a regular part of public school so that all students participate for free and in a less stressed environment.

It makes sense to create a fairer and more meaningful college entrance exam, and UC, as the greatest public university in the nation if not the world, should play a major role in that. In the meantime, its job and that of universities nationwide should be reexamining college admissions from the ground up.

Which is more unfair, retaining essays as part of the application or using standardized tests? Exactly how helpful are grades? College officials should take care that tweaking one aspect of the application — such as doing away with standardized testing — doesn’t unintentionally create an even more unfair situation.

No matter what colleges do, theirs is not an easy task. In truth, predictors of college success are almost always going to favor applicants from financially secure, educated families. That’s woven into a society with enormous gaps in opportunity — food on the table, a secure roof above, schools with more amenities, being read to from an early age, access to multiple enrichment activities.

Eliminating college entrance exams hasn’t brought us anywhere close to a college application process that is fair, equitable and just plain sane. Families see college admissions as a big, unfathomable machine, which is why those who can afford it hire expensive professionals who know how it operates. It doesn’t need a tuneup, this machine. It needs a complete overhaul.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.