Only months ago a widespread college admissions cheating scandal among the upper crust of society made headlines worldwide.  Now, the College Board, the non-profit group which administers the SAT, will institute an “adversity score.” It’s a “compassionate action” of sorts intended to level the playing field of the ultra competitive and now-less-than-credible university admissions system.   

Various social and economic factors such as crime rate, poverty level, family stability, family median income, housing values, average size of high school class, achievement in AP level classes, if a language other than English is spoken at home, among other factors will be measured on a scale from  1 to 100 with 50 being considered average and anything above 50 indicating more hardship.

Some other important things to note: race will not be considered, the students will not know their scores, the scores themselves will not add points to their SAT score but will merely supplement the applicants’ overall profile, and lastly, the methodology from what both sides seem to be arguing is at best an imprecise and murky albeit well-intentioned effort at more university inclusion and at worst a last-ditch effort among the increasingly politicized academic overlords seeking to enforce racial quotas and preferences by any means necessary.  

Personally, I think it is an interesting but somewhat misguided attempt at rectifying a decades-long problem in one of America’s most sacred institutions: access and opportunity in higher education for the historically disenfranchised and economically disadvantaged.  

This is an interesting issue in today’s America because it forces one to consider the very nature of fairness and equality in a super complex and diverse country such as ours.  Many variables go into assessing somebody’s worthiness and capability when it comes to university admission and career entry.

Here on my thoughts on the matter.

Individual vs. Collective, Opportunity vs. Outcome: It is a Complicated Balancing Act

Some things are black and white–“hard” stats such as GPA’s, test scores, rigor of coursework, demonstrated competency in a previous work capacity, glowing reviews and recommendations from former teachers/bosses.  Other things are more “soft” in nature: overcoming adversity–economic, familial, and otherwise, leadership potential, an entrepreneurial spirit, musical/artistic/athletic prowess.

Both of these factors are at work when considering an applicants’ worthiness and potential.  Just how both of these worlds can blend together to create a fair and objective process and ideally be racially, culturally, and economically diverse is what is at issue during each and every college admission/career evaluation.

What makes the issue even more complicated is the delicate balancing act between the individual vs. the group and the sometimes forgotten clash between opportunity vs. outcome. Colleges want to increase the enrollment of underrepresented groups but in doing so sometimes at the expense of qualified individuals.

The individual being denied is being denied because of his membership of a group/class.  For the underqualified individual, he/she is being accepted because of their group identity.  Sounds contradictory but it is nonetheless standard practice in many universities.

Consider the case of Asian Americans who, as studies suggest, score very high on the SAT–the highest of any racial group.  In a true merit-based system based on the best test scores, they would – maybe to a disturbing degree some might point out – represent the largest portion of university students and members of elite professions.

Now say the opposite was put into effect–other racial minorities who overcame significant life difficulties are given preference over the highest test earners even while scoring less on the exams.  Combine this with wealthy applicants whose economic clout and social connections with lower scores “buy” their way in to such colleges.

This is the historical and present struggle facing many Asian Americans: they seem to be spurned from both sides. They are denied certain slots because of their “likeness” (score high scores, play piano, strong science/math aptitude, want to be doctors–not my stereotype but what university documents have revealed), allowing for wealthier more connected students to get in while also being denied entrance for not being “minority enough” and not facing enough “hardships” as other ethnic minority groups.

Henry Park is an infamous example of an Asian being denied access to the Ivy Leagues years ago because of this phenomenon at work.  Interestingly, it is not too surprising that many Asian American parents are concerned that when these adversity scores gain traction in admissions decisions they will negatively impact their kids.  This is on top of the ongoing federal lawsuit Asians have filed against Harvard University for such alleged discrimination.  

Diversity and Inclusion: How Much is Good and Beneficial for Society?  What Limits, if any, does it have?

Talk to any university administrator, read the latest in an educational policy book…better yet, read the rationale from the highest Court in the land when adjudicating this very issue–diversity in student bodies brings with it certain societal benefits.  That’s the underlying premise behind the relentless push for inclusion on university campuses. Is all this fanciful theory or practical reality?

The very word university implies a certain universality, an endless incorporation, if you will.  But, tragically, this is where universities go wrong. In today’s rapidly diversifying age, universities try to be all things to all people.  I get it. Dividing people on the basis of race is downright wrong. Excluding various ethnic groups is equally bad. But trying to incorporate people of every stripe while downplaying their potential to succeed for the mere sake of diversity is wrong for the individual and society.  

What about the case of Vijay Chokal-Ingam, the Indian-American whose claim to fame was modifying his appearance to “look black” for the purpose of getting into top medical schools?  Even with a low below average GPA and MCAT score, he got in–an experience he recounts in his book, “Almost Black: The True Story of How I Got Into Medical School By Pretending to be Black.”  As his “normal” self–an Indian American–he would have been denied.

Under this new adversity score, the unintended consequence appears to be rewarding adversity and lack of group success while indirectly punishing individual success and merit.  If a first generation of immigrants arriving in America works extremely hard, does everything to rise out of poverty and put their kids through college, that second generation that goes on to repeat this positive cycle–should they be deemed “too privileged”  and given less adversity points, and, hence, less access to elite institutions/career opportunities?

The lesser qualified candidates that do get in–how do they fare in these instances?  Are they all indisputably rising to the top and outperforming their more qualified peers? Research suggests otherwise, and to a great degree. Many under-qualified students that do get in on the basis of race, and not merit, end up struggling and flunking out. A 2012 book by Attorney Richard Sander titled “Mismatch” looks into this very phenomenon.

I remember reading a book titled, “In Defense of Elitism.”  Pretty strong title, huh? It was an interesting read by a very liberal lawyer who believed that the country’s eroding value of rewarding merit posed a serious threat.  I agree with this sentiment.

In the name of protecting feelings and extending adolescent idealism, it seems like we are suffering from a collective lack of objectivity. I’ve always felt competitive sports in school would one day lose score cards.

It is an elitist notion for sure and really begs the question: “should students with disabilities fall under the SAT adversity score when it comes to college admission?”  One mother, who recently published an article in the Washington Post, believes so.

Let’s explore this elitist idea a bit more….

Why We Need to Question the Very Worthiness and Usefulness of College and Stop the One Size Fits All Mentality

The very nature of university life and culture is elitist–especially in the upper echelon of schools.  Such educations were reserved then, and now, for the best and brightest (which, unfortunately, can sometimes include the bad apples that cheat and bribe their way through).  That is not to say that the poor cannot compete and get up there and hold their own. Far from that.

I’m saying that academic culture, by its very design, is elitist: they live and work in remote locations, make up a percentage of the population in the single digits, high cost, are experts in subjects the general public knows little about, etc.) When all universities adopt this exclusive posture the students who perhaps out not even be there are the ones that suffer, academically, financially and otherwise.

Are we misleading millions of kids to think they can do and be anything if they simply go to college and work hard? Might their be more fundamental limitations and perhaps natural capabilities that suit certain people with select personalities for certain types of education and career training?

Are we too afraid, politically correct, and so post-industrious that we believe everyone needs to go through four years of college and that any path to the contrary is simply at best “a back up plan” and at worst a disastrous life outcome riddled with social ostracism, class exclusion, and career inferiority?   

“Academic elitism” at its worst, this seems to be the damaging decades-long messaging that young people have believed and internalized to the point of no return.  In the face of an impending skills gap this is horrible career preparation and an even worse prescription for overall career and life satisfaction.

The funny thing is that while the College Board seeks changes to its SAT testing, many universities are beginning to make the test itself optional.  And it is not just your local university embracing this admissions change but premier schools like the University of Chicago, Bowdoin, Bates, and Wesleyan.  The same mentality that questions the SAT’s predictor of college success needs to start in the high schools with questioning whether college itself is the sole predictor of career and life success…

Educational Redlining and Adversity: Who are the Winners and Losers?

In his article “Redlining in Reverse,” Attorney Mark Pullam, arguing that the SAT Adversity scores enables race-based college admissions, makes the point that overgeneralizing on the basis of zip code, and not making decisions on the basis of individual merit, is no better than the historical discriminatory practice of redlining.  He writes:

“Personal characteristics are highly individual in nature. No credible “adversity score” can be calculated based on the collective or aggregate characteristics of a particular neighborhood or high school. Such macro data-gathering is both crude and superficial. Generalizing in this manner—imputing group traits to an individual—is the essence of stereotyping, like denigrating people who live “on the wrong side of the tracks.” While purporting to be “scientific,” the adversity score is by definition imprecise—a statistical meat ax instead of a personalized scalpel.”

On that note, when zip codes and income levels become beneficial or detrimental to standardized scoring, what of the cheating that can easily take place?  She’s a national caricature now–either loved or ridiculed for her claim depending on your political leaning–Presidential contender Elizabeth Warren’s claim of Native American lineage?  

Instead of striving to excel and letting the best person win are we going to have a national obsession with racing to the bottom–claiming as many disadvantage points as possible to gain entrance to college, get elected to office, and receive preference and advantage of one sort or another?  

Supreme Court Justices have questioned the usefulness of standardized tests, many universities are now making them optional, multitudes of people are making amazing livings online using digital entrepreneurial skills, there seems to be a welcome embrace of traditional arts and crafts and labor…..Let’s keep this mind….  

In the mad dash to get in everyone into college the powers that be are again “missing the forest for the trees”–too involved with theory of getting everyone into college but denying individuals in the process what could otherwise be a better life trajectory.  

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