Standardized admissions tests are the quiet killer of college affordability

For over a decade now, a debate about college affordability has been erupting across the nation. As of right now, over $1.5 trillion dollars of debt sits on the shoulders of 42 million college students and graduates. Solutions like free college and loan forgiveness have been proposed by the highest sitting politicians in office. Rightfully so, it has become one of the most important issues to the public, both liberal and conservative.

Thankfully, yet another debate is emerging. This time, it affects students and families who haven’t even been accepted into a university.

In 2001, Richard Atkinson, president of the University of California, proposed dropping the SAT as part of admissions requirements. Some prestigious colleges like Middlebury have made them optional. In fact, over 1,000 accredited universities omit the SAT and ACT from their admissions, with over 100 universities ditching them in just the past four years. Even UAA dismisses SAT scores, preferring tests like math placement.

Friends of the movement to make college accessible should be ecstatic. Tuition and housing are massive barriers to affordability, but it’s easy to ignore just how huge a role standardized admissions tests play in stopping families from considering college altogether.

The SAT and the ACT often cost as much as a college application itself, with both costing somewhere between $45-$65. This assumes, of course, that students only take the test once. Many students retake the test multiple times, mostly terrified their score isn’t good enough for the college of their dreams. Some are pressured to compete with others in their class for a better score, and others assume a low score is the same as low intelligence.

To understand why 50 bucks is such a big deal, think about how compounded the cost of college is. First, think of the extra costs that are incurred through taking the test. For instance, many students, mostly those with low-income, have to take time off from work to take the three-hour test. Some miss school and the chance to learn important information during class, which just adds to their stress load and decreases their academic performance.

Now, add your test to a handful of application fees, which average another $50 each. Don’t forget about your housing deposit if you’re living on campus, never mind the cost of moving your stuff if you’re going to an upstate or out-of-state school.

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There’s more costs involved along the way, depending on the school you go to, but the numbers add up quickly. Imagine families who live paycheck-to-paycheck and can barely afford to send their kid to college because of tuition alone. Pinching pennies means every cost counts. The seemingly marginal price of $50 often means the difference between applying in the first place or not.

Why keep these tests around? Proponents might say that part of the cost of a quality education is proving you’re qualified to attend in the first place. They might say that the SAT has been around since 1921 because it’s the best qualitative measure of academic performance.

These assumptions are mistaken. The conflatation a high SAT or ACT score with likelihood of success or intelligence is the biggest academic myth ever perpetrated to high school students.

Time and time again, research concludes that standardized testing itself is an absurd method of determining competence. There’s plenty of reasons for that based on the design of these tests, including the prominence of multiple-choice questions despite the lack of them in the rest of their academic format.

But for many general reasons, standardized tests are better at testing your anxiety and income level more than your intelligence. As many of us can relate, test anxiety can easily take over and wash away everything you’ve ever learned the minute you pick up the pencil. Most students are already overloaded with the daunting task of graduation, AP tests, finals and teenage life in general.

As a result, many brilliant, well-qualified students fail the test on a bad day, while those who landed on luck go on to a college they might not even be ready for.

Not to mention, low-income students — particularly students of color — statistically fail the test at higher rates since wealthier families can pay for tutors and fancy SAT prep books that give them an obvious leg up.

Clearly, the problem isn’t that students fail standardized admissions tests; it’s that standardized admissions tests fail students. If you want real metrics to evaluate students, look to holistic admissions interviews used by top universities.

Better yet, consider the level of involvement a student has in their community. Judge the dedication to knowledge and passion these students have instead of ruling them out because of a ridiculous test designed to benefit the same wealthy, privileged students.

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