Saturday, May 03, 2008

SAT Scores Up; Colleges Panic

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article about the fact that very-high SAT scorers make up a much larger proportion of the student body at elite colleges than they did in 1989. (Some data are here.) If that is all I tell you, how do you interpret this? Surely the most sensible reading is that competition for these colleges is much higher than it used to be. The amount of positions at elite colleges is fixed, but the population of young Americans, and the emphasis they and their parents place on getting into a name-brand school, forces these scores up. The average Harvard admit is simply going to be a far better student than he was in 1989. Presumably this is a good thing, for Harvard and the country.

But that is not how the Chronicle interprets the findings. Instead, it reports that:

Two recent studies conclude that selective colleges give excess weight to SAT scores to improve their college-guide rankings, but they could attract more minority and low-income students by giving more consideration to other admissions criteria.

In other words, the main impact of better SAT scores is that (some) minorities can’t access the most elite higher education. The argument is phrased as “high scorers' share of selective-college enrollments has risen largely because of the institutions' ‘attempts to climb the pecking order of various college ranking systems.’” By this is meant the sorts of rankings that show up in places like US News & World Report. This “[hurts] the prospects of low-income and minority applicants, who are less likely to post high scores.”

Several things to chew on here. First, the authors of the studies cited in the report appear to take it for granted that emphasis on getting better rankings is bad. But given how opaque the quality of college education is (price alone is a surprisingly poor guide, unlike, say, a men’s suit), rankings surely help consumers (i.e., parents) make better decisions. Colleges arguably should be trying to climb these rankings for the same reason that restaurants and car-makers try to get good ratings from food critics and Consumer Reports.

Second, it is uncritically assumed that admissions of poor and “minorities” (by which is really meant “minorities other than Asians”) are objectively too low. But scholars such as the UCLA law professor Richard Sander (whose very important work I have noted here and here) that using criteria other than standardized tests and GPA, at least in law schools, results in mismatch – non-Asian minorities are admitted to the top law schools at higher rates, but drop out and fail bar exams at much higher rates, meaning that their time is basically wasted (as is the time of the students who didn’t get in because they did). The passage of Prop. 187 in California, which banned all race-conscious affirmative action at state universities there, had the salutary effect of increasing graduation rates of non-Asian minorities who were admitted to UC Riverside and UC Santa Cruz or Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo instead of Berkeley or UCLA.

Ultimately, whether SAT scores are overrated in the admissions calculations that universities make depends on their predictive power – do students with high scores graduate at higher rates and get higher grades without having to make such special accommodations as easier majors or extensive tutoring services. If not, then admitting lower-SAT students will require investment in this special help that the students in whose stead they were admitted may not need. Is the SAT informative compared to other things in the admissions packet? Are the ratings the colleges want to climb useful to parents and students? What kind of admissions policies make for the best students? I do not know the answers to these questions, but I do know they are the questions to ask; the ethnic makeup of the student body is a considerably lower-priority question.



Post a Comment

<< Home