Here's my answer to a question on Quora regarding this issue:
I couldn’t read the whole WSJ article, but I did find and read CBS News’ summary of it. The index is based upon socioeconomic factors that glaringly do not include race. Here’s a link to the CBS article:
SAT exam reportedly to give students "adversity score" in bid to level playing field
Here’s the relevant (to me) part of the CBS article:
Each of the three categories has five sub-indicators that are indexed in calculating each student's adversity score. Neighborhood environment will take into account crime rate, poverty rate, housing values and vacancy rate. Family environment will assess what the median income is of where the student's family is from; whether the student is from a single parent household; the educational level of the parents; and whether English is a second language. High school environment will look at factors such as curriculum rigor, free-lunch rate and AP class opportunities. Together these factors will calculate an individual's adversity score on a scale of one to 100.
According to the Journal, a score of 50 is considered "average." Anything above 50 proves "hardship" while anything below 50 is considered "privilege." The College Board did not immediately respond to a CBS News request for more information about the methodology behind its calculation of the adversity score and if other factors are considered.
The Journal reported that this new score will appear alongside a student's SAT score and will be featured in a section labeled the "Environmental Context Dashboard." The adversity score's formal name on the dashboard is "Overall Disadvantage Level," but it has been colloquially called the "adversity score" by college admissions officers, per The Journal's article.
This sounds like a reasonably well-thought-out attempt to help colleges make decisions about what students would benefit from, and also “deserve affirmative action” as some people might put it. It addresses the obvious counter-argument to race-based affirmative action or other special admission programs - “What if a minority applicant is from a super-wealthy background, with loving parents, an excellent high school, and so on? How is it fair to give that applicant preference over a white kid from Detroit whose single mother often didn’t receive child support, went to a horrid inner-city public high school where most kids learned only to ‘shoot dope and shoot each other (Jello Biafra quote)’?”
I attended Williams College with at least two students (one of whom may have influenced this policy) who were from disadvantaged backgrounds. One was African-American; the other was white and looked like he was from a privileged background. The rumor about the white one was “his parents are ambassadors!” No, his dad worked for an axle factory in Detroit and ran a restaurant for a while. His mother was similarly situated.
He went on to be a Rhodes scholar and met the current president of the College Board while at Oxford on his Rhodes scholarship. It would not surprise me if this decision was influenced by that man’s conversations with my college classmate.
My experience of knowing this man was that his story serves as a Rorschach inkblot test. A conservative could point to his story as evidence of “See? This kid got ZERO affirmative action points and made it! I don’t want to hear it about ‘disadvantaged backgrounds!’” A liberal would then counter with “That’s interesting that you’ve completely glossed over the fact that minority students are much more likely to be from disadvantaged backgrounds like the background of this kid you’re holding up as your golden boy!” And they could argue back and forth until they finally get angry and storm off.
The man himself wrote an article for a college newspaper that basically stated people who didn’t have to overcome adversity should be quiet, since they’re obviously trying to talk about something they haven’t experienced, and that affirmative action opponents from disadvantaged backgrounds should have empathy for others, since they know how hard it was for them to make it. But I digress.
Regardless of who influenced the decision, this is just a more formalized, and dare I say, “standardized,” version of what selective colleges have done in admissions decisions for the past 50 years, if not longer. The Bakke case, mentioned by another answerer of this question, established that crude racial quotas cannot be used in admissions. So colleges look for other factors that indicate an applicant may have had more adversity to overcome, which should work in that applicant’s favor. A child who grew up poor with a single mother and not much access to educational materials wealthier children took for granted, with little guidance on how to get into college, let alone a selective college, shows more initiative, drive, organization, and persistence than an applicant who has had access to better opportunities.
While this may “be another Bakke case waiting to happen,” as that poster put it, I think a lawsuit wouldn’t find this index to be discriminatory. It’s literally based on statistics from government agencies and whoever else tracks such things - property values and vacancies, crime rates, free-lunch-recipient rates, etc, none of which is open to serious dispute. Even if crime rate reporting is racially biased (e.g., police in minority areas are more likely to arrest people for minor violations than those in majority white areas), that would HELP people from “bad” neighborhoods, who are disproportionately minorities. I don’t see any court, even the craziest conservative judges, stating that people who almost literally “pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps” (that’s actually physically impossible), don’t deserve special consideration, since conservatives argue for the “bootstraps” approach all day, every day, except when they need special favors [*cough* 2008 bank bailout *cough*].
Did my two college classmates deserve more consideration than I received in admissions because I came from a nicer background than they did? Yes, since they did better than I did when we were in college together. People from “bad” backgrounds often do better in impersonal college environments than people from warn, nurturing backgrounds where they received personal attention and assistance frequently. The kid from the bad neighborhood learns “You’d better hustle and take care of yourself, because those who care about you can’t help you, and those who can help you don’t care about you - they care about what you can do for them!”
Will this index be perfect? Of course not. The SATs aren’t perfect tests; they’re computer-scored standardized tests that can be affected by factors such as test prep and tutoring (which kids from wealthy families are more likely to receive), how the kid was feeling the day he or she took the test, etc. So of course it’s limited, as is any statistic or standardized test.
This index can’t measure for the “poor little rich kid” effect - the trope from thousands of novels, TV shows, and movies where a kid from a privileged background grows up with emotionally distant, neglectful, or outright abusive parents (e.g., the movie Mommie Dearest), but that’s what application essays are for, I suppose.
A kid who’s got Jerry Springer or Oprah points should emphasize what adversity he or she had to overcome in his or her essays. Even kids from nice, supportive backgrounds are asked to, and should, write about academic challenges they’ve overcome. I’ve helped high school students apply to college write such essays by helping edit them, making suggestions about what colleges would like to see, etc. Schools that want deep insight into applicants’ characters will continue to ask for such essays. Those that don’t, or those that would like some assistance, will rely on the index provided by the College Board. And some will reject that index outright in favor of their own essays and application/interview process. This is really nothing worth getting upset over - it should help much more than it hurts.
Author: John Linneball Who did you think? ;-)
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