Read: The reasoning behind the SAT’s new “disadvantage” score
Nevertheless, even an imperfect adversity score is better than failing to account for the difficulty so many students overcome. Research from Anthony Carnevale of Georgetown University has found that the most disadvantaged students, on average, score a whopping 784 points lower on the SAT (out of a possible 1600) than the most advantaged.
Many decades into the controversy over affirmative action in college admissions—and with a conservative Supreme Court poised, many believe, to overturn the practice—an adversity score offers colleges some way to acknowledge what everyone knows: A student who scored 1200 on the SAT despite having grown up in a high-crime neighborhood and attending high-poverty schools has more long-run potential than a student who earned 1200 while having access to the best private schools and paid tutors. In the end, even rough measures of socioeconomic disadvantage are better than no measure at all.
For all the controversy around affirmative action, most Americans think students who have thrived despite stiff obstacles deserve extra consideration. In a 2018 national poll by the Boston-based public broadcaster WGBH, only 24 percent of respondents supported using race as a factor in admissions, but 58 percent said colleges should take account of “overcoming hardships such as poverty or health problems” as an admissions factor.
The College Board’s new adversity score helps quantify for admissions officers what has been a relatively vague and amorphous sense of what obstacles a student has faced in achieving her academic record. The score is based on 31 neighborhood and school socioeconomic factors, such as the median family income and adult educational level. It does not count race, the College Board official Connie Betterton told The New York Times, because the use of racial preferences has been banned in several states where the SAT is used (including large states such as California and Florida). In an interview, Betterton told me that the adversity score omits any consideration of a student’s own financial circumstances, because to incorporate that could complicate some universities’ need-blind admissions policies.
Read: The problem with the SAT’s idea of objectivity
One way or another, though, colleges should be giving greater consideration to disadvantaged students who do fairly well despite the odds. In a study of 13 selective colleges that William Bowen and his colleagues published in 2005, the researchers learned that, with the same academic profile, a student’s chances of admission increase 30 percentage points if she is a recruited athlete, 28 percentage points if she is an underrepresented minority, 20 percentage points if she is a legacy, and not at all if she comes from a low-income family. A just-released Pell Institute study found that “representation of students from low-income families at the nation’s most selective institutions is low, and relatively unchanged from 20 years ago.”