An Imperfect SAT Adversity Score Is Better Than Just Ignoring Adversity

The College Board’s simple, straightforward indicator will make schools pay attention to the tough odds some applicants face.

Students take an exam in class.
Martin Bureau / AFP / Getty

Last week, the College Board announced a long-overdue innovation: It will try to put students’ SAT scores in context by providing colleges with an adversity measure that summarizes—on a scale of one to 100—the disadvantages that students suffer when they grow up in troubled neighborhoods and attend high-poverty schools.

But many in the chattering classes immediately pounced on the idea—some because the score does not explicitly take account of an applicant’s race and the particular challenges that may come with it, and others because they see it as a sneaky way of enshrining racial quotas. The adversity score’s wonkier critics faulted it for trying to reduce the complexities of a student’s circumstances—which could include a parent’s alcoholism or the premature death of a sibling—to a single number. A score based on school-wide or neighborhood-wide data, skeptics argued, could never accurately capture the gist of any one student’s life.

I have studied aspects of college admissions for decades. While the adversity measure was in development, I myself attended four meetings at the College Board to discuss the concept. I recommended, based on extensive research, that socioeconomic disadvantage be included at the family, neighborhood, and school levels. The College Board ended up using only the last two of the three.

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.

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.”

Hence the promise of an adversity score. A study of a pilot program involving eight selective universities suggests that when admissions officers have that information, they are more likely to admit disadvantaged students.

On the one hand, critics on the left are wrong to say that race is missing entirely from the College Board’s adversity score. It is precisely because racial discrimination has been a central feature of American history—and continues to bedevil us today—that African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately disadvantaged and therefore will disproportionately benefit from the adversity score. For example, just 6 percent of white youths live in neighborhoods with a more than 20 percent poverty rate, but 66 percent of black youths live in such neighborhoods.

On the other hand, critics on the right are wrong that the adversity score is just a disguised racial preference. Heather McDonald of the Manhattan Institute called the adversity score “a backdoor to racial quotas in college admissions.” But while it is true that students of color will disproportionately benefit from taking economic and educational disadvantage into account, the subset of individual students admitted will often be very different. In my personal capacity, I am an expert witness in a lawsuit challenging racial preferences at Harvard. My research has found that the proportion of black and Hispanic students who are economically advantaged—that is, members of underrepresented minorities from relatively wealthy familieswould drop from 71 percent under the status quo to 29 percent under a system of socioeconomic preferences.

The widespread use of adversity scores could prove politically significant. Whereas racial preferences divide the progressive coalition by reminding working-class whites and underrepresented minorities of their differences, socioeconomic preferences would remind them of their commonalities.

The ultimate benefit of the adversity score is that it provides a quantitative counterpoint to the SAT itself. The SAT has a talismanic character—to the point that people remember their score 30 years later—in part because of its seeming precision. Having a single adversity score to counterbalance the SAT is a healthy corrective.

It is certainly true that not all obstacles can be quantified, which is why it would be crazy for universities to admit students based solely on the SAT and adversity score. They should also look at extracurricular activities, leadership, and essays that outline other obstacles a student has faced. But whatever the flaws of the College Board’s adversity score might be, it’s a number that admissions officers will have to see, and it will inevitably change the way they read the rest of an applicant’s file. It’s not as though, in the absence of such a score, colleges have done a good job of admitting substantial numbers of students who have overcome tough odds. At the least, the College Board is offering schools a simple, straightforward way to give underprivileged applicants a chance.