The “adversity score” gambit

I want to add a few observations to those of Scott and Heather Mac Donald regarding the “adversity score” that the College Board offers to provide to colleges along with applicants’ SAT scores. First, college admissions offices already know the information that yields this score. Charles Deacon, the dean of undergraduate admissions at Georgetown acknowledged:

We have so much personal data on all our applicants that we don’t feel the need for a tool like [the adversity score].

Why, then, is the College Board offering it? I see the adversity score as a means of masking racial discrimination in objectivity, and without specific reference to race. Indeed, Anthony Carnevale, former employee of the College Board and director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, told the Wall Street Journal that “the purpose is to get to race without using race.”

Given lawsuits like the one alleging that Harvard discriminates against Asian-American applicants, it may make sense to use the “adversity score” to render “objective” what colleges already are doing to “get to race.” In that case, discovery revealed that a large number of Asian-American applicants lose out based on Harvard’s use of a subjective assessment of “personal characteristics.” If Harvard is found to have discriminated, then using an objective score provided by a third party to achieve similar results may be a solution for colleges that discriminate on the basis of race (as nearly all do).

This doesn’t mean the changeover would be without consequences. Although the acceptance rate for Black applicants would likely remain about the same, using the “adversity score” might change the characteristics of admitted Black applicants.

The new approach would likely help Blacks from the lower economic strata at the expense of Blacks from upper middle class and wealthy families. The former will be found to face more adversity than the latter.

One can applaud favoring Blacks from poor families over those who are well-to-do. Keep in mind, though, that the latter cohort is probably more likely than the former to succeed in college. There’s a good chance they have better prepared in high school, and I suspect that as a group they have better SAT scores.

How would Asian-Americans fare? It depends on how “adversity” is scored. An applicant who, for example, came to this country from Asia as a six-year old, and whose parents don’t make much money and don’t speak good English faces considerable adversity by any fair measure.

However, that applicant’s parents may have sacrificed to make sure the applicant grows up in an okay neighborhood and goes to a good high school. The “adversity score,” as it has been described, seems to place considerable emphasis on neighborhood conditions and the quality of the high school applicants attend. Thus, Asian-Americans who face real adversity may be penalized for their parents’ attempts to help them overcome it.

Even without knowing the full details on calculating the adversity score, I think we can conclude that a fair amount of subjectivity is involved in determining the calculation. And I have no doubt that the subjectivity tilts the score in favor of Black applicants, and intentionally so.

As Carnevale, the former College Board employee, says: “The purpose is to get to race without using race.” That’s an improper and, I think, unconstitutional purpose.

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