How to give everyone a fair shot in college admissions

Credit: Courtesy of CollegeSpring

Much of the focus on systemic inequality in America — in education or other sectors — has rightly been through retrospective or historical accounts about present-day conditions, or through cries for social reform based on egregious incidents and related frustrations. It’s a rare occasion, however, when we have the opportunity to reflect upon a slow but potentially pernicious systemic change that’s taking place in real time, right before our eyes. 

Within higher education, there’s a new inequitable system in the making — or worse, a re-entrenchment of an old one — that stands to sharply divide and negatively affect society, communities and the future workforce. 

As we end one admissions cycle and reflect on the testing policy changes in college admissions in 2024 alone, Ivy League schools like Cornell, Harvard, Yale, Brown, Dartmouth, MIT, other highly selective universities like CalTech and UT-Austin, and now Stanford, reversed test-optional policies to begin requiring the SAT and ACT again. The flood of announcements made it easy to dismiss or tire of them, since most of these colleges are already viewed as out of reach for the majority of students, calculated on one basic fact: grades.

All students know — or at least used to — that at minimum, you need stellar grades and a good test score to get in. Today, however, it seems that will only be true of some exceptional schools. With test optional-schools, it’s less clear-cut whether test scores matter and/or how good your grades and scores need to be.

Wealthier, more privileged students combat the complexity by continuing to prepare for and take the SAT or ACT — no matter the school — while lower-income students with less access to quality counseling and information are told the tests are less important in college admissions overall. This effectively takes any of the above-mentioned schools off the table for them, and also lowers their chances even at the other test-optional schools. More and more, students will pursue only the colleges they think they’ve been prepared for — while taking themselves out of the running for schools that could admit them.

I fear we are on the precipice of recreating systemic divisions that are reminiscent of those of the not-so-distant past — the mid-20th century — when people went to schools with others who were assigned to the same station in life. The Harvards of the country selected students from local or known elite circles. There were different standards for women, who went to colleges that prepared them for support roles, not leadership. Black students predominantly went to Black colleges — mostly for Black men. People of certain classes, genders, religions, and races were grouped together —all according to their expected roles and objectives in life. 

So what can we do now to stem this growing inequity?

Some might say the antidote would be that all colleges should have the same rules — either every college requires the test or they don’t. To be clear, I believe that would be the most fair thing to do. Test required or test blind, and nothing in between.

I also believe that would be impossible, impractical and unrealistic to enforce.

In the United States, we have a problem with standardization — and not just the testing kind. On the one hand, this nation was founded on the principle of equality, on sameness for all. That, however, stands in fierce tension with our desire for individualism and uniqueness. So, while I think the same rules and opportunities would undoubtedly lead to a fairer system and better outcomes for all people, I’ve realized that uniformity is not a rallying cry people will get behind.

What we must get behind, then, is for every college to be as transparent as possible about how test scores are used. I commend schools like Dartmouth, which did the research to be able to say: To attend this school, you must submit a score, and if you are from an underrepresented background, we will factor your score in this way.

Test-optional schools should develop a clear-cut rubric to give students a sense of how much weight they give to scores, or what minimum score they will need if their GPA does not meet a certain threshold. Even if this increased transparency from schools was made available to students, what all students need — and in particular students from low-income underrepresented backgrounds — is the same message that their more privileged peers are getting: “Take the test. It will likely help you. You might not need it for some schools, but at least you will have more options if you are prepared.”

For students who do want to take the SAT or ACT and receive a score, testing companies and educators must ensure that they give them opportunities to do so. It’s troubling to read about lack of testing sites or canceled administrations, like the one that affected 1,400 students in Oakland on June 1.

Those of us who educate and guide students should encourage and help them to set and reach high standards, not prepare them for the bare minimum. The way we do that is by ensuring all students are positioned at the starting line with the same information, not different interpretations of the admissions landscape.

If we want as many Americans to have the highest quality education possible, this system-in-the-remaking is not sustainable. We now have a moment to pause and reflect upon the direction we’re headed and ask how we can use everything we know and see today to make our schools more inclusive, ensuring that they are engines of mobility for all students from all backgrounds, not just a select few.


Yoon Choi is CEO of CollegeSpring, a national nonprofit that trains schools and teachers to provide SAT prep to students from low-income backgrounds.

The opinions expressed in this commentary represent those of the author. EdSource welcomes commentaries representing diverse points of view. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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