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Broken Dreams: College Access and Outcomes

There has been an increasing focus on opening up access to a college education. In principle, I completely agree with and support this focus: a college degree is a dynamo for individual, generational, and societal advancement. Many college admissions counselors have taken up this worthy cause. For example, the updated mission statement of NACAC (National Association for College Admission Counseling) states that they are “driven by a fundamental belief that expanding opportunity and removing barriers to postsecondary education advances equity and benefits everyone.”[i]

But, there’s a problem. Good intentions do not always lead to good outcomes. Unfortunately, many very well-intentioned people have been misled into advocating for practices that accomplish the opposite of helping disadvantaged students. Here’s how.

Access versus Outcomes

Imagine we want to expand opportunities and remove barriers to getting a driver’s license. This seems like a worthy goal, right? I can see this helping a lot of people: people would have more mobility, gain access to more employment opportunities, etc. But, let’s say to achieve this mission we need to eliminate one of the exams to get a driver’s license. Press pause. Now I’m not so automatically in favor of expanding opportunity anymore… What if doing so leads to more accidents? Doesn’t that potentially hurt the people we’re trying to help and put others at risk as well?

Yes. And that’s exactly what is happening in higher education right now.

Those in the anti-test movement are well-intentioned but fixated on the wrong objective. The goal should not be more access; the goal should be better outcomes. Do we really care if more people have access to a driver’s license if that will hurt the people we’re trying to help? No. The same is true in education.

There is no evidence that supports that moving away from test scores improves outcomes for disadvantaged students in college. That’s not a typo. Literally none. Zero evidence. Which makes sense given that colleges could always have accepted any students that they want – they were always free to accept disadvantaged students, low scores or not, so losing the second best predictor of success in college has only hurt colleges’ ability to predict success and help the outcomes of disadvantaged students.[ii] At some of the most competitive schools, such as Harvard, test scores are the best predictors of success (even better than even high school GPA since there has been so much grade inflation that, on average, 68.1% of all college freshmen in any 4-year bachelor degree programs had an A+, A, or A- average high school GPA so most applicants look almost identical without the use of test scores).[iii] Ironically, there is scant evidence that moving away from test scores even improves access for disadvantaged students: a study of 99 test optional colleges showed that going test optional only increased diversity by 1%.[iv] But there is a plethora of evidence that says that using test scores helps predict success in college and helps colleges admit students who will have better outcomes.[v]

But, back the issue at hand. Here is a snapshot of what happens when the focus is access, not outcomes.

Higher Dropout Rates

One of the most worthy goals is to improve educational outcomes for first generation students because a college degree helps people earn more and even live longer (and live in better health throughout their lives).[vi] But only 11% of low-income first generation students who enroll in a 4-year bachelor’s degree program graduate within 6-years with a bachelor’s degree.[vii] What happens to the other 89%? Almost half (47%) dropped out of college. About a quarter (26%) left with an associate’s instead of a bachelor’s degree. And a remaining 16% were still enrolled – whether they ever completed their degree, dropped out, etc is unknown. What’s the effect on the half who do not graduate?

  • Debt: the average student who leaves college before graduating has $13,929 in student loan debt[viii]
  • Default on that debt: 47% of students who drop out of college without a degree are in default on their debt, which has its own set of damaging consequences:
    • Lower credit score: defaulting on student debt significantly hurts a person’s credit score, which makes it either impossible or more costly to secure credit to buy a home, a car, etc.[ix]
    • Increased fees: late fees and collection fees make the debt even more expensive[x]
    • Wage garnishment: a creditor can come after a person’s wages (and, for federal student loans, the IRS could withhold tax refunds)[xi]
    • Loss of employment: people can be denied employment, have their professional licenses suspended, be denied security clearances, etc from delinquent debt[xii]
    • Since 1984 when the Bankruptcy Amendments and Federal Judgeship Act passed, both federal and private student loans have been almost impossible to wiped clean, even if someone declares bankruptcy, so this debt is more dangerous than most other types of debt because it is so irrevocable.[xiii]
  • Hurts an entire family: A parent, child, or sibling’s failure at college can discourage an entire family from pursuing higher education.[xiv]

The high dropout rate of first gen students is the equivalent of tossing car keys to disadvantaged students, opening the car door for them, ignoring that half drive off and crash right behind you, and then congratulating yourself on your accomplishment. Yes, they were given opportunity, but they were given the opportunity to very likely fail and then be worse off than before. And, even if they did not drop out of college, disadvantaged students were more likely than their peers to drop out of majoring in a STEM program.[xv] James Capp, assistant provost for academic operations and planning at Florida Atlantic University put it well when he said, “One of the things we found when we started to look at the data [of how many students were dropping out] was that what we were providing access to was debt. They were just leaving higher education with debt and nothing to show for it.”[xvi] Most people who advocate for increased access are good people who have been misled: I don’t think they know that only 11% of students given keys succeed. Otherwise how could they justify that the good outcome of 11 people is worth the destructive outcome for over 44 others?

And this hurt caused by students dropping out of college is not limited just to first gen students. On average, the less selective the college, the higher the dropout rate.[xvii] Only 63% of students at all 4-year degree granting colleges and only 29% of students at the least selective 4-year degree granting colleges (those with open admissions) graduate within 6 years. That’s astounding. Why are we prioritizing access when the outcome of over a third of college students is failing to finish college and when the most disadvantaged students are the most likely not to finish and to be more disadvantaged than before? We need to shift the focus and prioritize outcomes so that students are actually helped, not hurt, by pursuing a college degree.

One way to do so is to recognize how helpful standardized test scores are for helping to ensure that students succeed in college. Because high school GPA combined with standardized test scores are the best method for predicting success in college, losing standardized test scores diminishes a college’s ability to enroll students who have a higher likelihood to succeed at their college and to graduate.

Fewer Scholarships and Less Financial Aid

But it gets worse: not only are disadvantaged students more likely to attend a college at which they might not succeed if they apply without test scores, but, if they don’t submit standardized test scores, they may also be less likely to receive a scholarship or as much financial aid.[xviii] Fewer scholarships and less financial aid not only add to their student debt burden (which weighs down their success in life), but less financial assistance also increases the odds that they will drop out of college.[xix] Disadvantaged students should be encouraged more than anyone else to study for the SAT and ACT, not only because learning the foundational content tested on these exams will help them succeed in their college courses but also because high scores on these exams can increase their scholarship and financial aid awards, which will help their financial futures directly through less debt and indirectly through decreasing their dropout rates.[xx]

More Inequality and Less Integrity

Imagine if we replaced the road test to get a driver’s license with an evaluation of a person’s extracurricular activities, recommendations letters from others, and personal essays about overcoming hardships in life. That’s only slightly more ridiculous than removing standardized admission tests and then placing more emphasis on extracurricular activities, teacher recommendations, and essays for college admissions. How do those things help improve outcomes? They really don’t. If you have two relatively equally qualified students who can both succeed at a college, then, yes, it makes sense to gather additional information to assess who will be the best personality fit at the school, contribute most to the community there, etc. But, the problem with replacing standardized tests with a larger emphasis on personal characteristics is, first, those characteristics do not necessarily improve predicting a student’s success at a college, but, secondly and much more problematically, the current attempts at assessing the personal characteristics of applicants favor both the wealthy and the unethical.[xxi]

The wealthy have more access to extracurricular activities.[xxii] They are more likely to attend wealthier schools at which the teachers write longer and higher quality recommendation letters.[xxiii] And they can and do hire highly paid consultants to craft personal essays for them.[xxiv]

And the unethical can lie about their extracurricular activities and fabricate every aspect of their personal essays.[xxv] Why would we want to rely more upon aspects of an application that can be faked? Students actually have to learn grammar, mathematics, rhetorical skills, reading analysis, etc to improve on the SAT and ACT; there’s no faking your way to a higher SAT or ACT score.

So people trying to improve access to college for disadvantaged students want to replace standardized tests that improve a student’s match with a college, chances of succeeding at and graduating from a college, and their financial awards with… admissions criteria that favor the wealthy even more, can be faked, and that don’t necessarily improve outcomes for disadvantaged students…

What?

Confused? Here’s a bit more context. Most people who advocate against the use of test scores in admissions are well-intentioned but misinformed. Some people who have been quick to champion the anti-test movement have also benefited abundantly from that same anti-test movement. With a decrease in standardized testing, the expensive services that many private college counselors offer (advice on what courses to take and extracurricular activities to do, college selection and admissions advice, and college essay assistance) are dramatically more in demand. I encourage any truly well-intentioned person who is anti-test to evaluate the totality of the data and to seek the truth about what will most benefit disadvantaged students.[xxvi]

The best resource available, which reviews more studies on the topic of testing than any other and includes datasets covering millions of students over decades, is the book “Measuring Success: Testing, Grades, and the Future of College Admissions.”[xxvii] I also love Jeffrey Selingo’s recent book: “Who Gets in and Why?” But you can’t just focus on who gets a driver’s license. You also need to focus on who reaches their destination with it, so you need to pair that book with Mark Kantrowitz’s recent book: “Who Graduates from College? Who Doesn’t?” You need to check if the people you’re trying to help are actually helped. When dramatically more colleges went test optional on account of the pandemic, college admissions counselors said in response, “We are doing a good job without considering test scores.” They were congratulating themselves on the class they admitted. But they have no idea how those students will perform at the college and if they will graduate. How about instead: “We did our best, and in 6-years (for a 4-year degree) we’ll have a better understanding of whether our experiment with taking out the second best predictor of success in college worked.” That would be both truthful and show humility and integrity rather than a self-congratulatory victory lap before they see the outcome of the race.

How to Make a Difference

If you really care about how testing impacts the pivotally important issue of helping the most disadvantaged students, then please do diligent research before defaulting to the expedient position of opposing tests. Doing away with tests is appealing because it seems so simple: no one likes taking tests, and wealthy students tend to do better on the SAT and ACT, so we’ll just do away with them. If only it were that easy. The wealthy tend to do better on the SAT and ACT because they are better academically prepared. Disadvantaged students tend to do worse because they are not as academically prepared (that’s why they’re disadvantaged). So you don’t solve the problem (a disparity in academic preparation) by eliminating literally the only standardized, national measure of that disparity in academic preparedness – you only hide the problem and allow it to become worse.

Here are actual ways to make a difference:

  • The SAT and ACT are not the problem, but they do measure the problem. The way to solve this problem is to prepare these students better academically, to invest more in education, to raise the standards to which we hold ourselves.
  • Colleges should champion the graduation rates of their disadvantaged students, not their admit rates of those students. I don’t care if 100% of your admitted students are disadvantaged students if your graduation rate is 0%. Your admit rate is literally irrelevant. Once we focus on the graduation rate of students, then colleges will focus on what they should be focused on: ensuring good outcomes for those students. And the SAT and ACT are also helpful for identifying which students will likely need remedial help in college in order to succeed.[xxviii] You can still admit those students with low SAT and ACT scores (colleges don’t need to be test-optional or test-blind in order to admit students with low scores), but, with the added context of their test scores, colleges are better positioned to guide those students who likely need extra help into remedial classes that will provide them with the necessary academic preparedness to succeed in college and in life. So, again, SAT and ACT scores help disadvantaged students as long as colleges and college counselors care to help the outcomes of disadvantaged students.

We need better academic preparation for disadvantaged students – that will raise their SAT and ACT scores, prepare them to succeed, increase their admission chances to more selective colleges, and increase their scholarship and financial aid awards. But we also need colleges to use the tools available to them to identify which students will most likely succeed at their school and to help identify which admitted students will likely need additional support to succeed. By doing so, we can improve outcomes for all students, but especially for those students who are most disadvantaged and deserve the most support.


Works Cited

[i] “Mission & Vision.” National Association for College Admission Counseling, https://www.nacacnet.org/about/mission-vision/. Accessed: 2/27/2022

[ii] Sackett, P. R., & Kuncel, N. R. (2018). Eight myths about standardized admissions testing. In Measuring Success: Testing, Grades, and the Future of College Admissions (p.16). Johns Hopkins University Press.

University of California Faculty Report. 2020. https://senate.universityofcalifornia.edu/_files/underreview/sttf-report.pdf. Accessed: 02/18/2022

Paul Westrick, Huy Le, Steven B Robbins, Justine M.R. Radunzel, and Frank L Schmidt. “College Performance and Retention: A Meta-Analysis of the Predictive Validity of ACT scores, High School Grades, and SES.” Educational Assessment 20 (2015): 23-45

[iii] Cooperative Institutional Research Program at UCLA. The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2019. p.34

Harvard’s Admissions Webpage. https://college.harvard.edu/resources/faq/what-harvards-graduation-rate. Accessed: 02/18/2022

[iv] “PROOF POINTS: Test-Optional Policies Didn’T Do Much To Diversify College Student Populations”. The Hechinger Report, 2022, https://hechingerreport.org/proof-points-test-optional-policies-didnt-do-much-to-diversify-college-student-populations/. Accessed 6 Mar 2022.

[v] Buckley, Jack et al. Measuring Success. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018.

[vi] Blobaum, David. “Is All Education Meaningful?” Summit Prep, 2019, https://summitprep.com/is-all-education-meaningful. Accessed: 2/27/2022

[vii] https://eab.com/insights/daily-briefing/student-success/90-of-low-income-first-generation-college-students-dont-graduate-on-time/. Accessed: 2/27/2022.

Pellinstitute.Org, 2022, http://www.pellinstitute.org/downloads/fact_sheets-6-Year_DAR_for_Students_Post-Secondary_Institution_121411.pdf.

[viii] “Dropping Out Of College Could Cost Students In More Ways Than One.”. The Balance, 2022, https://www.thebalance.com/the-cost-of-college-dropout-4174303. Accessed: 2/27/2022

[ix] https://loans.usnews.com/articles/what-happens-if-you-default-on-a-loan. Accessed 6 Mar 2022.

[x] “How Much Collection Costs On Defaulted Student Loans Are – Nerdwallet”. Nerdwallet, 2022, https://www.nerdwallet.com/article/loans/student-loans/collection-costs-defaulted-student-loans#:~:text=When%20a%20student%20loan%20defaults,by%20as%20much%20as%2040%25.

[xi] “Student Loan Default Has Serious Financial Consequences”. Pewtrusts.Org, 2022, https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/fact-sheets/2020/04/student-loan-default-has-serious-financial-consequences.

[xii] “Student Loan Default Has Serious Financial Consequences”. Pewtrusts.Org, 2022, https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/fact-sheets/2020/04/student-loan-default-has-serious-financial-consequences.

[xiii] Webley, Kayla. “Why Can’T You Discharge Student Loans In Bankruptcy?” TIME.Com, 2022, https://business.time.com/2012/02/09/why-cant-you-discharge-student-loans-in-bankruptcy/.

[xiv] Tough, Paul. “The Years That Matter Most.” Huffington Mifflin Harcourt. 2019. p.57

[xv] Gladwell, Malcolm. David And Goliath. Penguin, 2015.

Tough, Paul. “The Years That Matter Most.” Huffington Mifflin Harcourt. 2019. p.297

[xvi] “College Enrollment Is Down Across The Board. Schools Respond With Efforts To Reduce Dropout Rates.”. NBC News, 2022, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/education/colleges-new-solution-enrollment-declines-reducing-number-dropouts-rcna18569.

[xvii] https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=40. Accessed 6 Mar 2022.

[xviii] Selingo, Jeffrey. “Who Gets in and Why.” Scribner, 2021. p.223.

[xix] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2016/11/01/hundreds-of-dollars-in-aid-can-make-all-the-difference-to-some-college-students/. Accessed 6 Mar 2022.

[xx] “10 Ways Student Debt Can Derail Your Life”. Investopedia, 2022, https://www.investopedia.com/articles/personal-finance/100515/10-ways-student-debt-can-destroy-your-life.asp.

“The Far-Reaching Impact Of The Student Debt Crisis – Scholarship America”. Scholarship America, 2022, https://scholarshipamerica.org/blog/the-far-reaching-impact-of-the-student-debt-crisis/.

Ellis, Blake. “Grads’ Well-Being Shrinks As Student Loan Debt Grows, Study Finds”. Cnnmoney, 2022, https://money.cnn.com/2014/05/06/pf/college/student-debt-well-being/index.html#:~:text=College%20graduates%20without%20any%20student,a%20Gallup%2DPurdue%20University%20study.

[xxi] “Hiding Inequality”. David Blobaum, 2022, https://davidblobaum.com/hiding-inequality/.

[xxii] Snellman K, Silva JM, Frederick CB, Putnam RD. The Engagement Gap: Social Mobility and Extracurricular Participation among American Youth. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 2015;657(1):194-207. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0002716214548398

[xxiii] Selingo, Jeffrey. “Who Gets in and Why.” Scribner, 2021. p.186

[xxiv] Center for Education Policy Analysis at Stanford. CEPA Working Paper No. 21-03. Version April 2021. https://cepa.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/wp21-03-v042021.pdf. Accessed: 02/18/2022

“All The Greedy Young Abigail Fishers And Me”. Jezebel, 2022, https://jezebel.com/all-the-greedy-young-abigail-fishers-and-me-1782508801?fbclid=IwAR3aTDwDCv61qchwrPov4LG9FFtM79G5lRT8xZr33MnTPohB2uGiwQnws5g.

[xxv] “‘They’Re Not Fact-Checking’: How Lies On College Applications Can Slip Through The Net (Published 2018)”. Nytimes.Com, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/16/us/college-admission-applications.html.

[xxvi] “Hiding Inequality”. David Blobaum, 2022, https://davidblobaum.com/hiding-inequality/.

[xxvii] Sackett, P. R., & Kuncel, N. R. (2018). Eight myths about standardized admissions testing. In Measuring Success: Testing, Grades, and the Future of College Admissions. Johns Hopkins University Press.

[xxviii] Tough, Paul. “The Years That Matter Most.” Huffington Mifflin Harcourt. 2019. p.309-311

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