A Personal Case for College Admissions Exams

Yale announced today that it will reinstate a requirement that applicants to the school submit scores from a standardized college admissions exam. Yale says that making these tests optional is harming low-income students whose scores could have helped them get in.

Over at People’s Policy Project, we have occasionally published articles about college admissions exams, generally in the direction of defending them as a better way to implement selective admissions than alternatives. This piece from July of last year discusses a Chetty paper that shows that non-score admissions factors — like extracurricular activities and recommendation letters — heavily favor the rich.

As a general matter, I believe that college selectivity should be hugely dialed back from current levels. The idea that there is any relevant distinction between 99th percentile college applicants and 90th percentile college applicants is obviously ridiculous and the effort to make that distinction is really wasteful and harmful in a variety of ways.

One thing I have not said in my prior writing on this topic is that, in part due to my own experience, I find the argument that these tests are an equalizing force that allows low-income students to demonstrate themselves to be way more plausible than a lot of other people seem to.

The anti-test discourse tends to present the tests as inegalitarian because (1) poor kids have less test preparation resources available to them than rich kids and (2) for this and other reasons, poor kids perform worse on the tests than rich kids on average.

The first point seems to be a bit overrated. Expensive test preparation basically consists of taking practice exams and then reviewing what you got wrong. This can be done inexpensively on your own and it’s not clear that it actually increases scores all that much.

The second point is correct, but is confused.

Low-income kids are underrepresented at the top of the test-score distribution just as they are underrepresented at the top of pretty much any other indicator of educational attainment and academic ability. Being poor is disadvantageous in a lot of ways when it comes to excelling academically.

But the top of the test-score distribution is not completely devoid of low-income kids. There are fewer of them than there would be in a random draw, but they do exist. For those kids in particular, the test is often the best and sometimes only way that they can prove their abilities and show that they actually are more capable than their richer peers.

My own case is instructive in this regard.

Neither of my parents went to college and I grew up in a low-income household. I had a lot of disciplinary problems in school, which included being suspended dozens of times, being kicked off of the school’s basketball team twice for fighting, and being assigned at one point to an alternative school, though this decision was eventually overturned after appealing to the superintendent.

My sister, who was two years older than me, had not gone to college and I had not intended to go to college either. My parents knew so little about the college application process that, unbeknownst to me, they went to see my high school counselor to talk about colleges in the second semester of my senior year, well after college admissions deadlines.

In my junior year of high school, I took the PSAT and scored in the top 0.3 percent in the country, earning me the designation of National Merit Scholar. Individuals designated as such are put on a list that is distributed to college admissions offices across the country. This resulted in the University of Oklahoma contacting me and offering me what amounted to more than a full-ride scholarship once Pell Grants were considered.

As someone not seriously considering college, I was quite impressed by this offer at the time. OU is a flagship state university and just objectively a very good educational institution. I realize these days that there are levels to this thing and the true elites don’t take OU all that seriously. But that also made attending OU fun in various ways.

In any case, it was only the administration of an identical test to over 1.5 million kids that allowed me, a low-income kid, to demonstrate that I can actually perform on the same level as my more well-to-do peers. It may not be a truly level playing field in that different students bring different resources to the test, but I’d rather have a slightly tilted playing field than no playing field at all.

By the time law school rolled around, my situation was quite different. Four years of college, including one in the McNair Scholars Program, left me with a much fuller appreciation of how the admissions game worked and I was a much more strategic applicant by that point.

Still, it was scoring in the top one percent of LSAT test-takers that made it easy for me to demonstrate to schools that, despite my not-so-elite undergraduate institution, I was still able to outperform kids from much more prestigious universities. I was accepted to four T-14 law schools and probably would have been accepted to more but for the fact that the very top of the T-14 schools give extra weight to applicants who do not go straight from undergraduate to law school (a non-academic factor that specifically impeded me, a poor!).

Perhaps this all smacks of “it worked for me, so it is good.” But I don’t think so. The college system and the economic system are separately and, in their interaction, quite unsavory in many respects. But within all that unsavoriness, it is simply the case that standardized tests allow otherwise disadvantaged kids to show what they can do in a way that no other thing does.

There is a reason why the scandals surrounding the SAT and ACT generally take the form of rich people paying a ringer to fraudulently take the test for their kid. It’s because dim rich kids can’t outcompete brighter poor kids in that specific arena. There’s real value in that.