Opinion | The Case Against ‘Excellence’ at Universities

In the first part of this look at the SATs, I focused on the 10 schools that make up the University of California system and how the stated rationale for abandoning the SAT and ACT might not always match up with reality, in particular when it comes to test preparation courses.

I want to stick with the U.C.s but first want to look at a bit of history. The U.C.s weren’t the first schools to end their relationship with the SAT and ACT. There have long been schools that gave students the option to not submit their standardized test scores. Most of these were liberal arts colleges that might have seen it as a marketing opportunity or a way to distinguish themselves from their virtually identical competitors.

Bowdoin College, my alma mater, stopped requiring the SAT in 1970. In the years that followed, the number of applicants went up. Schools tend to copy one another’s policies, especially when they’re in direct competition with one another, and Bates College, which, like Bowdoin, is an exclusive, small liberal arts college in Maine, followed suit in 1984; Bates, too, saw an increase in total applicants, as well as an increase in the geographic and racial diversity of its students. Holy Cross, another small college in New England, went test-optional in 2006 and saw similar effects.

These might seem like encouraging signs that dropping the SAT could lead to an increase in diversity, but there are still a couple of crucial follow-up questions to ask.

● Which students are benefiting from the test-optional policy?

● If a school that dropped the SAT/ACT reported a rise in underrepresented minority enrollment, how did this compare to underrepresented minority enrollment at similar schools that kept the test?

The answer to the first question can be found in a 2014 paper, “Defining Promise: Optional Standardized Testing Policies in American College and University Admissions,” by Valerie Franks and William Hiss, two former Bates admissions deans. (I’ll avoid too much commentary here, but it does feel like a bit of a conflict of interest to have two of the people who helped pioneer test-optional admissions write a defining study about the topic. It’s a bit like having Phil Jackson, the apostle of the triangle offense, conduct a study on the efficiency of the triangle offense.) What Franks and Hiss found in a study of 28 schools was that underrepresented minorities were more likely to withhold their test scores and that there was no difference in the academic performance of these students once enrolled.

The latter part isn’t surprising. There’s a host of studies and conversations about how well the SAT predicts student performance in college. (If you’re interested, you can read about some of them here, here, and here. For a lively analysis of predictiveness in general, read this.) I have decided to table the discussion about what’s predictive and what’s not because this newsletter is about whether dropping the SAT and the ACT leads to increased diversity on campuses. How those students do in their classes is an important but somewhat unrelated concern.

It seems most people agree that going test-optional leads to a temporary burst in total applications and that many underrepresented minority students may see the dropping of an SAT/ACT requirement as a pathway to admission at more exclusive schools. But does this actually increase diversity? The most comprehensive study on this question was published in a 2018 book, “Measuring Success,” and asked the second question posed above: How do gains in underrepresented minority diversity compare to those at similar schools that kept the test?

Kyle Sweitzer, A. Emiko Blalock and Dhruv B. Sharma, the authors of the study, wrote:

In terms of racial diversity, the percentage of freshmen students of color did not change in either direction for liberal arts colleges after making the switch to test-optional admissions. In fact, we find that test-requiring institutions increased student diversity to the same degree as that of test-optional institutions. This result contradicts one of the often stated justifications institutions provide for implementing a test-optional policy, which is to diversify the student body. Our analysis suggests that institutions should not rely on a test-optional approach to admissions as a means to increasing the racial diversity of the student body. … Furthermore, this result suggests that the motivation for adopting a test-optional policy is not to diversify the student body, since student diversification appears to be related more to an institution’s desire to do so.

In short, when every school is trying to recruit more underrepresented minority students and touting gains in their enrollment, it’s wishful thinking to attribute those numbers to one change in standardized test policy, especially when competitors that kept the test are reporting more or less the same gains.

There are a number of differences between liberal arts colleges in New England and the U.C.s. in terms of size, admissions goals, the students they attract, etc. But over the past year, we’ve gotten a preview of what a post-standardized-test U.C. system might look like, thanks to the schools going test-optional as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, and it has shown that the lessons of Bowdoin and Bates might have some relevance.

This past January — to great fanfare — the U.C. system announced that it had received a record number of applications from Latino and Black students at their campuses, which in turn led to a record number of underrepresented minority freshmen in the incoming class of 2021-22. “These remarkable numbers are a testament to the hard work and resiliency of students and their families across California,” Michael Drake, the president of the U.C. system, wrote in a statement. “I am particularly heartened by the social and economic diversity of those offered a place at U.C. Fall will be an exciting time on our campuses.”

At first glance, these numbers do seem impressive. According to preliminary findings released by the U.C.s, the number of Black freshmen admitted systemwide rose from 3,987 in 2020 to 4,608 in 2021. But these record numbers should be considered in the proper context: Applications, in general, hit record highs in 2021. The percentages of Black and Latino applicants stayed almost exactly the same. In 2019, Black students made up 5 percent of admitted students at U.C.s. In 2020, they made up 5 percent. In 2021 they once again made up 5 percent. With Latino students, the increase was marginal — 34 percent in 2019, 36 percent in 2020 and 37 percent in 2021. If dropping the SAT and ACT had any effect on income inequality, it didn’t show up this year. The percentage of California freshman applicants with low family income fell from 43.5 percent in 2020 to 41.5 percent in 2021.

The U.C.s did admit a record number of students for this year, but they also rejected more students than ever before. At U.C.L.A., the admission rate went from 14.4 percent to 10.8 percent, which should be seen as a problem for a public university in the second-biggest city in the country but, of course, is not. Instead of reflecting on what amounts to decreased opportunities for all students in the state to attend U.C.L.A., the school declared victory. “I’m over the moon,” a U.C.L.A. official told The Los Angeles Times, referring to the increase in minority students. “The years of hard work … bore fruit for us, and it’s a good feeling.”

But Black enrollment at U.C.L.A. went from 6 percent in 2020 to just 7 percent in 2021. Latino enrollment went from 23 percent to 26 percent. Asian American enrollment, for what it’s worth, fell from 42 percent to 39 percent. At Berkeley, Black enrollment numbers fell slightly, while white enrollment went up. Meanwhile, at U.C. Merced, one of the least selective U.C.s, Latino enrollment numbers fell from 54 percent of the incoming freshman class to 50 percent; so did the total percentage of underrepresented minority students entering the freshman class.

It should surprise nobody that when choosing to spin this news, the U.C.s chose to talk about what happened at U.C.L.A. and not at U.C. Merced which is, by far, the most diverse campus in the system. Why? According to The Upshot, the median annual family income of a student at Merced is $59,100. At UCLA? $104,900. Berkeley? $119,900. That’s the entire game: The elite schools with wealthy students and alumni tout minuscule increases in diversity, while schools with more working-class students like Merced, where over 57 percent of students come from underrepresented minority groups, don’t matter.

At elite schools, diversity is for rich kids. In his opinion in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the landmark Supreme Court case regarding affirmative action in college admissions, Justice Lewis Powell wrote about something called the Harvard plan, which came to define the benefits of diversity. “A farm boy from Idaho can bring something to Harvard College that a Bostonian cannot offer. Similarly, a Black student can usually bring something that a white person cannot offer.” Powell’s logic is why Merced’s falling diversity rate does not get discussed and why we never hear about the underrepresented minority populations at large state schools that admit most of their applicants. First and most important, those schools don’t have problems with diversity. Second, if you take Powell’s logic to its natural conclusion, the “farm boy from Idaho” or “Black student” is on campus to broaden the perspective of the Boston Brahmin and, perhaps, teach him a few lessons about tolerance. Maybe this is a cynical read, but it’s driven by an even more cynical way of thinking that reduces young people into data points and waxes philosophical about what their backgrounds might add to a campus.

“We have admitted a class almost identical to the record-breaking class of last year,” Olufemi Ogundele, the dean of undergraduate admissions at U.C. Berkeley, told Inside Higher Ed. “Faced with a pandemic and a 28 percent increase in freshman applications, we remained focused on our values of access, excellence and diversity.”

If you’re facing a 28 percent increase in applications, admitting an identical class to the year before means Berkeley has become far less accessible, not more. The actual impediment to access, of course, is what Ogundele called “excellence.” As long as schools brag about their low admission rates, diversity will always be a matter of adjusting numbers to yield tiny gains. You never hear about diversity issues, for example, in the Cal State system, which educates more than twice as many students as the U.C.s. That’s because the Cal State schools charge lower tuition and accept most of their applicants, and as a result, nearly half of their students come from underrepresented minority backgrounds. In fact, you never really hear about Cal State schools because the conversation in the media about higher education in this country will always be about places like Harvard and U.C.L.A.

If you believe, as I do, that state education should be well funded, deeply rooted in community colleges, extremely cheap and accessible to all without any of the harmful privilege engineering found in the Ivy Leagues, the progressive case for keeping standardized tests, in public schools at least, is relatively simple: The admissions process for state schools should be transparent and more or less automated. If administrators and admissions officers want to regain the public’s trust after the Varsity Blues scandal and decades of escalating tuition costs, the last thing they should do is make the process even more ornate, inexact and prone to bizarre machinations. Standardized tests are deeply flawed, but as long as we insist on a higher education system that sorts students into separate tracks, they remain a tool for increased transparency.

Private institutions like Bates and Bowdoin can do whatever they please, but state school systems have a responsibility to the public. Changing admissions standards that have been in place for decades without any clear rationale only consolidates the power these institutions have over the lives of students. Before they made the decision to drop the standardized test requirement, the U.C. regents requested a full report from a task force. As was detailed in The Atlantic, that 225-page report found that standardized testing did a better job than high school G.P.A. of predicting student performance at the U.C.s and did not harm the chances of underrepresented minority candidates. The report then suggested the U.C.s keep the SAT and ACT requirements while working on a replacement, U.C.-specific test. The regents, none of whom are elected, disagreed and voted 23-0 to phase out the tests. In doing so, the regents went against the suggestions of the report they commissioned. (According to a U.C. official, the regents have decided to postpone the development of their own test but are considering a version of the Smarter Balanced exam, which is already given to California school kids. But the same disparities exist with that test as with the SAT and ACT, and there has been significant pushback against the introduction of any standardized test from administrators, students and faculty members. As of this writing, there has been no decision. The official also noted that the fall 2021 incoming class was the largest in U.C. history.)

I don’t see anything progressive about any of this. The fight for higher education should be about major shifts in affordability and accessibility and the quick dismantling of those networks of privilege that force one student to study all hours of the day while allowing wealthy legacies to take their spot. We should not allow the narrative of equity in higher education to be dominated by elite institutions that are proud that their Black student population went from 6 percent to 7 percent while obfuscating losses at their poorest campus.

What’s particularly frustrating about all the focus on standardized testing is that the U.C.s already have a system in place that expands access to kids who may not have had the stability, surroundings or opportunity to put up a 4.0 G.P.A. or pad their résumés with “interesting” extracurricular activities: the community college transfer pipeline. To its credit, the state of California has taken steps to expand this program over the past three years: Six U.C. campuses now guarantee admission to community college students who meet minimum G.P.A. requirements; neither Berkeley nor U.C.L.A. is among them. (In a statement about whether the system had plans to expand the transfer program, a U.C. official wrote that this year, “the University admitted the largest-ever class of California Community College transfer students, notching up to 28,453 from 28,074, a year-over-year increase of 1.35 percent,” but did not indicate any plans beyond that.)

In California’s community colleges, you will find students of all ages, ethnicities and political leanings. They will likely have one thing in common: Working-class backgrounds. In 2020 the U.C. system admitted 119,054 freshmen and 28,074 community college transfers. If those numbers were split even a bit more evenly, especially at the flagship schools that currently do not guarantee admission for community college transfers, no public university in California would ever have to start a diversity initiative, because there would be no diversity problems.

State schools that are committed to social justice should make the community college transfer program the first and final word when it comes to diversity, rather than celebrate tiny shifts in minority enrollment while driving down admission rates. Instead of adjusting scores and engaging in the careful engineering that ends with one student being declared more “holistic” than another, they should make the community-college-to-four-year-university-pathway as easy and as normalized as possible. Students would be able to take on less debt, orient themselves in their chosen fields of study and stay in their hometowns.

All this seems obvious. And yet you’ll rarely see mention of community colleges in the broader discussion about diversity on college campuses because, again, when it comes to elite college admissions, diversity is for rich kids. Letting in more community college students would make these schools less exclusive and upend the doomed game of balancing elite credentials with some imagined baseline of acceptable minority enrollment.

Actual diversity — not just the stray farm kid from Idaho regaling his roommates with stories about backhoes and corn palaces — should be a central goal for any institution of higher learning. We should stop affording these institutions the benefit of the doubt when they implement undemocratic, wide-ranging measures that affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of students and ask that they take their values as seriously as they ask us to take them.

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Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang) writes for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine. He is the author of the forthcoming “The Loneliest Americans.”

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