What we’re not talking about when we talk about the new SAT “Adversity Score”
By Elissa Salas
Recently the College Board, the organization which administers the SAT, announced it would assign an “adversity score” to each student who takes the college admissions exam. College applicants will be rated on a series of environmental factors designed to provide a snapshot of the level of hardship they may face, or privilege they may enjoy, so admissions officers have a more holistic view of the applicant’s educational path and potential.
Those of us who serve students from the very communities this aims to support applaud any effort to create a comprehensive approach to evaluating students, given that the SAT has had a long history of demonstrating both income and racial bias. We know all too well how inherently unfair the college admissions process is, and welcome any attempts to level the playing field for low-income applicants. Their potential and talent are high, and their opportunities are low. At a time when only 9% of students from low-income homes are earning Bachelor’s degrees by age 24, compared to 77% of students from high earning families, we clearly need to do better.
Will this adversity score mitigate disparities and open doors to higher education for more low-income students? Time will tell. I will remain hopeful.
But offering college admission to more low-income students is only half of the solution. Getting them enrolled in college does nothing if we don’t make sure they have what they need to graduate.
While college attendance rates continue to rise nationally, the gap in college completion, particularly for lower-income students and people of color, is widening at an alarming rate. Today, only one in five low-income students who start college will graduate with a bachelor’s degree. And the cost of students not completing college is significant, not only for them but for the workforce. A student who begins college but leaves before graduation is three times more likely to default on their student loans and have significantly lower lifetime earnings than a graduate. Without dramatic improvements in higher education graduation rates, the United States is predicted to fall short 5 million workers by the end of next year. We are missing out on an extraordinary pool of talent if we do better at admitting low-income students to college, but do not ensure they complete.
Is there a single score that will tell us which students are likely to graduate from college? No. But if we’re going to rate the adversity students face before college, then we also need to address the adversity they are likely to face while attending college. Academic, financial and social-emotional challenges are all too common among low-income, first-generation and undocumented undergraduates. 60% of the total cost of attending college is estimated to be indirect costs such as housing, fees, books and utilities — financial pressures which spark stress and make it difficult to succeed in the classroom. These factors combine to endanger students’ abilities to persist in and complete college.
Here is the good news: more colleges are recognizing these problems and providing students with supports beyond academic and financial, including reliable nutrition, housing, transportation and childcare. Schools with dedicated resources for low-income and first-generation students offer much-needed community and social-emotional development opportunities. We see the success of this approach, and we need to make it universal at any institution of higher education that is committed to serving all of its students.
The universities that are reviewing applicants in light of their adversity scores would be smart to turn their gazes inward and see if they can fully support students through to graduation, and if they cannot, then there are some hard conversations to be had. Because until we can address the inequalities that keep low-income Americans from not only going to college but finishing, we will not narrow the opportunity or wealth gaps in our country. After all, why should we measure adversity if we are not going to recognize and address it all the way through a student’s education?
Elissa Salas is the CEO of College Track, a 10-year college completion program empowering students from underserved communities to graduate from college. Elissa was the first in her family to earn a college degree.