51% of Americans Think College Admissions Tests Unfairly Give Wealthy Students a Leg Up

 June 30, 2021
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College Admissions Tests Unfair

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The coronavirus pandemic brought college admissions tests like the SAT and ACT to a screeching halt, and their hiatus has renewed calls for the nation’s colleges and universities to go test-optional.

Nearly 1 in 2 Americans (and more than 1 in 2 student loan borrowers) support ending testing requirements. Part of their reasoning seems to be an equality issue: While college entrance exams have long been accused of racial bias, 51% of the respondents to our latest Student Loan Hero survey also said that the SAT and ACT unfairly benefit students from higher-income backgrounds as well.

Given the costs of study prep courses and materials — as well as the tests themselves — many (but not all) consumers are on board with a test-optional future.

Key findings

  • 51% of Americans believe that sometimes-costly college admissions tests and preparation courses give wealthier students a leg up, to the detriment of lower-income families. (Read more)
  • 46% of former test-takers who reported being happy with their SAT or ACT scores paid for prep courses or materials. On the other hand, 25% who were unhappy with their marks said they couldn’t afford test prep. (Read more)
  • 44% of respondents agree with the decision to stop requiring admissions tests, something colleges and universities have increasingly adopted due to the coronavirus pandemic. Among student loan borrowers, the number of those in favor increases to 56%. (Read more)
  • 45% of consumers say they would be more likely to apply to college if admissions tests weren’t required, so test-optional policies could drive up attendance in the long run. (Read more)

More than half say admissions tests favor wealthier families

The college admissions test industry is dominated by two nonprofit organizations: ACT Inc. and the College Board. But nonprofit status doesn’t make those tests cheap, and College Board — which administers the SAT as well as Advanced Placement exams — earns “$1 billion in annual revenue and $100 million in untaxed surplus,” according to a 2020 Forbes investigation.

The cost to take and prepare for these standardized tests helps to explain why a little more than half of Americans believe the test-taking process favors better-off students and their families.

Drilling down into our survey results: About 40% of former test-takers say the costs of the ACT or SAT were burdensome. That proportion jumps to 54% if just looking at student loan borrowers who took one or both of the exams.

For lower-income families facing serious issues like food insecurity or even just common budget strains, the fees for these exams add up and can be difficult to cover if they can’t secure a test-fee waiver.

Current costs of college admissions exams
ACT $60
ACT with writing portion $80
SAT $52
SAT with essay portion $68
There are various other fees for registration and other services. For example, students must pay $12 to $15 to submit their scores to a fifth school (the first four are free).

While our survey didn’t include respondents’ families’ income at the time they took the test, those who earned six-figure incomes at the time of the survey most likely received test prep (46%) among other income brackets.

Respondents who earn less than $35,000, however, are least likely to have benefitted from pre-exam study courses or materials (31%).

Likewise, respondents who report earning at least $100,000 salaries are also most likely to be happy with their score.

Test preparation, scores affect views on admissions tests

It may not be surprising, but it’s certainly illuminating: Whether you benefitted from pre-exam prep is likely to affect whether you’re satisfied with your scores.

Nearly 13% of our survey respondents said they would have liked to undertake such prep — whether attending a class or poring through a textbook — but couldn’t afford the associated cost.

Those respondents who were fortunate enough to have at least some test preparation were almost twice as likely to say they were very happy with their score (46%) as opposed to unhappy (25%).

Test-takers among our survey respondents were evenly split on whether their scores helped or hurt them:Twenty-seven percent believe they would have gotten into more schools and/or been offered more scholarships if their scores weren’t a factor. On the other hand, 26% believe their test scores did help them get into top schools and/or receive scholarships.

Student loan borrowers who were less than thrilled about their exam results might have the most reason to feel aggrieved by testing, particularly if it decreased their merit-based financial aid. According to our results, 38% of current borrowers think their scores hurt them, compared to 19% of test-takers who did not take out loans.

Schools moving away from standardized admissions tests

The coronavirus pandemic severely impacted college admissions, as entrance exams were postponed and then (unsuccessfully, at times) rescheduled digitally. At the same time, many colleges and universities waived testing requirements temporarily.

But test-optional colleges and universities were proliferating well before COVID-19 entered the country’s lexicon.

The National Association for College Admission Counseling, for instance, put “years’ worth of discussion and deliberation” into its 2020 report that all but called for the end of standardized testing as we know it. And FairTest.org tracked the number of test-optional institutions to 1,500+ nationally, as of June 2021.

As noted above, many of our survey respondents are on board with the growing trend. But some of those who support the drawdown in testing also believe the exams have at least some value.

Overall, 44% of respondents said that exams like the ACT can indicate a student’s college readiness, but only when considered alongside other factors. Only about 1 in 5 (19%) said admissions tests are “one of the best indicators of ability.”

How families can navigate a sometimes-unfair admissions process

Americans who believe that college admissions exams pose greater obstacles to lower-income or first-generation college students aren’t alone in that feeling. Higher education experts generally agree.

“Higher education in the United States is and has been an unequal playing field,” Dr. Tom Green, an associate executive director at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), tells Student Loan Hero. “Those with great resources continue to enjoy advantages that others do not.”
From: How The College Admissions Process Favors Wealthier Students

As mentioned earlier, a downturn in testing could also result in an uptick in college attendance. According to our results, nearly 1 in 2 respondents said they’d be more likely to apply for higher education programs if testing weren’t part of the deal.

While an increasing number of colleges and universities are going test-optional, the question is what to do about the situation now, especially if the costs of test prep and exam fees are weighing on you.

If you or someone in your family is considering enrolling anytime soon, consider the following strategies:

Even if you are intent on attending a school that requires the traditional admission tests, there are ways to get by. With the help of counselors and fee waivers, you might qualify to take — and study for — standardized tests without paying the standard prices.

And, hey, taking admissions tests has at least one perk: A top score on the PSAT could help you land a national merit scholarship.

Published in News & Policy, Press, Research