In June, the University of Chicago announced that it would be dropping the requirement for SAT/ACT testing (making it test-optional). It is the first top-10 research university to do so, and many are hailing this as a landmark step. UChicago is hoping the decision will level the playing field for low-income students, and create a more economically diverse student body. James G. Nondorf, UChicago’s dean of admissions and financial aid, told The Washington Post, "It is about doing the RIGHT thing...which is helping students and families of all backgrounds better understand and navigate this process and about bringing students with intellectual promise (no matter their background) to UChicago (and making sure they succeed here too!).” But as a low-income student myself, I'm a little mixed about how this will actually play out.
The intentions are great; whether or not they will make a sizeable difference is hard to say. While UChicago's decision encourages students that they are not defined by a number on a test, low-income students are still unwillingly defined by the number on their families' paychecks.
Even without the testing requirement, just about every other aspect of the admissions process remains in favor of those who have the right resources.
Students who can afford tutors get better grades than the student who spends their nights working instead of studying. Students who live in well-off areas and go to well-funded high schools will have more opportunities to stand out in addition to better college counseling. Students with reliable technology and internet access will be able to research schools and produce a quality application much more easily than those without. Students with a family history of higher education have the experience necessary to better navigate the application process than first-generation students. While UChicago will also be adding an optional two-minute video component to their application in lieu of an interview, it may not be enough to bridge the gap between a student's situation and their true potential.
It also can't be ignored that one of the biggest problems with economic diversity in higher education does not lie in the admissions committee's decisions, but much further back in the process: the student's decision to apply at all.
The University of Chicago's recruitment scheme, as well as just about every other elite institution, has always relied heavily on test scores.
If a student checks a little box that gives their consent to be sent recruitment information, then their demographics are already being shared with these schools. This is how they know who they should market to. And because of the lack of preparation resources for many low-income students, these schools are still missing a big chunk of the community they are hoping to reach.
Low-income students themselves will also often be the ones to dismiss the opportunity. Imposter syndrome is adamant, and it's so easy to believe that they can't fit in at a school made up of people in a completely different socioeconomic class and who have so many more resources than them. Society pressures low-income students to stay in their own class. Even though everyone wishes for a better life for themselves, it can be hard to feel as though they deserve it. And while many elite institutions will meet the full financial need of students (UChicago itself boasting a no-loan policy), low-income students still see the hefty price tag and don't believe they can afford it. Even outside of the fees covered by financial aid packages, students most often still have to provide their own transportation and living expenses. This adds up fast and can become quickly overwhelming for low-income students.
I absolutely love the fact that such a high-ranking institution like the University of Chicago is becoming test-optional.
I applaud them for it. And it’s very clear that UChicago cares about reaching out to low-income students in other ways, from waiving the application fee to students applying for financial aid as well as partnering with organizations such as Questbridge (which gives resources to low-income students and helps elite institutions to connect with them). I am not writing this to criticize UChicago’s decision of becoming test-optional, but rather to use it as a catalyst to create discussion around the bigger picture.
Creating a level playing field for low-income students is not something that can be solved by this individual step. The educational divide is thriving because of the society we live in, not because of test scores. It is not up to our universities to fix this, but us. Share your resources by donating your prep books to your library or sharing your study documents online. Volunteer to be a tutor for low-income students. Vote for a government that supports public education. This is how we will truly start a movement for equitable education; this is how we will define ourselves by more than a number.
Lead Image Credit: Olivia Nyman