Reexamining Our Approach to College Access

By Angel B. Pérez

Recently, I read yet another higher education professional’s case for standardized testing, specifically that making such tests free and universal would help level the playing field for low-income and minority students seeking access to top colleges. But while the SAT’s hefty $57 fee contributes to the barriers low-income students face, eliminating it won’t solve the problem. Access to higher education in America is much more complex.

The problem is our nation’s inability to offer consistent college preparation, academic rigor and counseling across varying socioeconomic communities. Data from the College Board show that the higher your family’s income, the higher your SAT scores are. Standardized tests then do more to keep low-income students out of top colleges than to invite them in. There is no shortage of talent in America. The shortage lies in its cultivation.

Many countries surpassed the United States in educational attainment because they believe in providing equal educational opportunity for all.  In fact, the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, which measures global student performance, notes that the U.S. is not on the top 10 list of achievement in Math, Reading and Science. Canada and Japan on the other hand, are. What do these two nations have in common? Both made equal access to educational opportunity a top priority. In Japan, students may live in a poor neighborhood, but they don’t attend poor schools. In Canada, one third of young people come from immigrant families and, when given the same educational opportunities, perform at the same level as their peers. Equity has clearly benefited Canada tremendously since it is the only nation in the world where more than half its citizens have a college degree. Unfortunately, the U.S. lags behind on this issue. Instead of exerting energy investigating “affirmative action” in college admissions, perhaps the current administration could address the educational inequities that have resulted in America being knocked off the world stage.

A study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling shows that the average public school counselor has a caseload of 476 students and spends only 22% of his or her time on postsecondary counseling. This is in stark contrast to the 55% that private school counselors spend. Most low-income high schools can’t afford to offer expensive test-preparation courses to their students, and while free or low-cost online options are available, the services offered to students who pay for preparation courses are unparalleled.

Yet knowing how stark the contrasts are in preparation between low- and high-income students in America, most colleges still insist on using an exam that was created in 1926 by Carl C. Brigham to “test” America’s intelligence. The exam was originally touted as a tool of meritocracy, the great equalizer among students in America. We all know that dream never actualized. Our world has evolved tremendously since then, and a one-size-fits-all approach cannot be used to evaluate whether a student is ready to succeed in college. Our nation’s talent abounds. It’s higher education’s job to identify it.

From my own experiences as a vice president and teacher at several of America’s most selective institutions, I know it’s easy to dismiss an applicant because he or she doesn’t meet the university’s average test scores, or even worse, would hurt its average on U.S. News and World Report rankings.

But research shows that rather than test scores, the best predictors of success in college are high school grades and academic rigor.

At Trinity College, I have led efforts to rethink how we admit students, and we’ve changed our admissions process to think differently about what it means to be “college ready.” One of the changes we made was to adopt a test-optional policy. Next month, the college will welcome the most diverse first-year class in its history. It includes the highest number of low-income and first-generation students in Trinity’s history. In addition, the academic profile has increased tremendously. The Class of 2021 has twice as many students at the top of our academic evaluation scale as last year’s entering class. We focus on grades, rigor, curriculum and all quantitative data high schools submit to us. But we also pay very close attention to personal qualities that we know will help students succeed in college—qualities such as curiosity, love of learning, perseverance and grit.

Since we’ve redefined our admissions process, members of our faculty have told us that their students are more curious, engaged and involved. Isn’t that what we want from all of our students?

If our educational system in America provided equal educational opportunity to all students regardless of income level, making the SAT and ACT free might significantly increase the number of low-income students in college. However, since this is a far cry from our current reality, it is higher education’s responsibility to think more creatively about whom it allows in the door. We are a long way from ensuring that every citizen has equal access to high-quality education, but in the meantime, universities can play a significant role in ensuring inclusivity of all talent.

The demography of the U.S. is shifting dramatically. Our population is younger, more diverse and less wealthy. If we are going to prepare the nation for future challenges and regain our status on the world stage, we must rethink our approach to college access. We either fundamentally change student preparation for college or make our admissions processes more inclusive of diverse talents and less traditional—but more predictive—measures of success. Actually, our nation’s future depends on our doing both.

Angel B. Pérez is vice president for enrollment and student success at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. and a NEBHE delegate.



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