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Dropping the SAT is Just the Start – Take Down All the Barriers to College

Will the coronavirus kill the SAT? 

As a recent report in Forbes makes clear, momentum against the most famous admissions test for colleges is building.  Over the last decade, a gradually increasing number of schools had stopped asking for the test scores as part of their admissions process, or made them optional.  But during the pandemic, that number has skyrocketed.  Most significantly, the entire University of California system announced that it will stop asking for the test, and a number of California colleges already have.  

None of those colleges, or their students, appear to have been hurt in any way by dropping the test.  

Those who believe that there is too much reliance on standardized testing say “good riddance,” while those who defend the tests say that while they may be flawed, they are still the best factor of determining which students belong in college.  

But both positions may miss what is most significant about the shift in the college admissions processes. What the pandemic has made clear is that it makes no sense to have any barriers to college admission.  

The many barriers to college admission - the standardized tests, the high school transcripts, the application essays, the endless complicated paperwork - all of it is centered around the economic needs of the colleges.  Very little of it is centered in the best interest of the students, and little of it is in the best interest of society as a whole.  

After all, we live in a complicated economy in which trained knowledge workers are essential to growth and prosperity:  we need people who have college level training to make the economy work. This also means that everyone – every single kid, every single adult – needs access to ongoing education and training if they are going to be full participants in the economy.

So what is the point of barriers to entry to college?  Why do we need processes that make the application process more difficult and the outcome less certain?  What is the point, not just of the SAT, but of the entire Rube Goldberg machine of traditional admissions requirements?

The answer is that, outside of very basic paperwork, they mostly serve as ways that colleges can define themselves as elite and exclusive, and thus worthy of higher tuition.  Colleges that have lower acceptance rates look more desirable, score higher in arbitrary rankings, and get more prestige.  Which is lovely for them - but keeping students out serves absolutely no point in a time when we want and need everyone to have access to higher education.  The rubric that “we only accept the right students for us” is nonsense given how many students are admitted for reasons having more to do with family wealth, athletic programs, legacy applications, and a host of other factors that having nothing to do with the student’s test scores, personality, or past academic performance.  

We are not in a period where we need to separate the “elite” from the “ordinary” - on the contrary, we are clearly living in a time where there’s far too much of that already.  Wealth disparity grows.  The haves get more, the poor get less, and the failure of so many systems, from the criminal justice system on down, to adequately address the needs of marginalized populations is glaringly obvious.  

Given how much college success in the current system correlates with parental income and zip code of origin, no one needs yet another gatekeeper trying to distinguish who gets access to the common good and who doesn’t.  

We don’t need to distinguish between who is “supposed” to get access and who isn’t: we need to all pull together.  The response to someone looking for an education - of any kind - shouldn’t be “Let’s make sure you’re good enough based on some arbitrary metrics,” but “Great!  Let’s get started!”

If a good education is a requirement to participate meaningfully in the 21st century economy, and we want as many educated people as we can get, then the gatekeeping admissions requirements of colleges are as counterproductive as they are outdated.  We don’t need these tests:  we need access, equity, and more teachers and technology to provide it.