THE BRIDGE TO COLLEGE
Shift in Socioeconomic Focus Affects College Admissions
For years, American colleges and universities have pursued diversity of all types. I remember my first Harvard admissions representative telling me, “Bob, if we can find a qualified candidate from Tibet, we are taking him.” Later, I saw through professional experience how Ivy League schools actively sought students from underrepresented countries like Venezuela, Guatemala, Nigeria and Myanmar.
The most recent shift in college admissions seems to be away from geographic diversity. Students, families and professionals in China, Korea and Indonesia are forlorn that American schools appear to be accepting fewer international students than in recent years. Instead, new emphasis has been placed on pursuing students from families of low socioeconomic status.
The shift is not difficult to see. Just last month, the College Board announced that it had developed an SAT “adversity” score as part of a suite of information it calls the Environmental Context Dashboard. Basically, this is an algorithm that evaluates census data like median family income and poverty rate to determine “overall disadvantage level” in a student’s school district.
Although it became widely known just weeks ago, this new information has been available and used by some colleges for a year or more. About 50 universities utilized the ECD last year, and reports are that some schools (including Yale) have doubled the number of their students who come from disadvantaged circumstances.
Yet the shift is more pervasive than just one adversity index.
Last September, U.S. News announced a significant change in the algorithm it uses for ranking America’s top universities. For the first time, 5 percent of a school’s total score is allocated to a new ranking factor called Social Mobility. This factor focuses on the number of low socioeconomic students (those who receive Pell Grants) who graduate from a school.
So now that the rankings benefit schools which promote students who cannot pay for tuition, and the SAT provides extra information to identify those students, what effect does that have on students who are not economically disadvantaged?
Depending upon your family income, the shift can help you, or it can hurt you.
Although colleges and universities are non-profit educational corporations, they are still corporations. They have to pay bills, for their teachers, administration, support personnel, buildings, land, equipment, utilities … everything. To pay for each class, schools have to bring in enough tuition.
Although the cost of a class has not changed, when fewer students are able to pay tuition, somebody has to make up the difference.
Because of the number of students and families we serve, we are able to see trends that others might not. Here is what we saw last year: students who needed or requested some financial assistance suffered.
For one well-respected public university – Georgia Tech – we saw dramatic results. Two students with nearly perfect scores on SAT (1560 and 1580), Subject Tests (perfect 800’s), and AP tests (multiple perfect 5 scores) were outright rejected, not even deferred or wait-listed. There were no obvious issues when we looked at the remainder of their resumes and their essays. In years past, both students would have sailed into Georgia Tech. Not in 2019.
We saw the same thing many times with students applying to other schools. Students whose families were towards the middle of the socioeconomic pool suffered, while students from both lower-income and higher-income families did better than expected.
This shift could not have been anticipated when the admissions season began. US News did not announce its changes until 6 weeks into the admissions season, and the College Board “adversity” information because widely known only 6 weeks AFTER all of the schools’ regular action decisions were announced.
For many families, admissions strategies should change in response to the changing focus of the colleges and the education industry. Unfortunately, we will not be able to identify which schools will adjust their admissions focus until their new applications and webpages become available in August. Even then, we will not be able to see the best information until registration data is available later in the year.
As educational consultants, our job is to inform, train and assist to help our clients achieve the best possible schools. Things change every year, but this shift in favor of disadvantaged students affects monumentally more people than the recent Hollywood-fueled admissions scandal. We will find solutions.