Should the College Board’s New Adversity Score Impact Corporate Hiring?

This week the Wall Street Journal broke the story that the College Board, which administers the SAT college entrance exam in the U.S., will be rolling out fully a pilot project that assigns an “Adversity Score” to every student who takes the SAT exam. An AS of 50 (on a 1-100 scale) is average. Anything higher indicates that a student experienced “hardships” growing up, while anything lower suggests a privileged background. Intriguingly, students will not be shown their own score, which suggests just how sensitive a topic this must be within the College Board itself.

The College Board’s motivations for rolling out this new metric appear to be three. First, they are concerned that a conservative Supreme Court is likely to strike down any use of race in deciding college admissions. Second, they are concerned about the rising income inequality negatively impacting the academic performance of poor students. Third, admissions counselors have been asking for a single “environmental” score that would be consistent across all applicants for some time.

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My impression is that the second driver is paramount in this evolution. As the WSJ notes:

“There are a number of amazing students who may have scored less [on the SAT] but have accomplished more,” said David Coleman, chief executive of the College Board. “We can’t sit on our hands and ignore the disparities of wealth reflected in the SAT.”

If one believes the WSJ, the AS was a hit in testing last year, and one admission director is quoted as saying that “This [adversity score] is literally affecting every application we look at. It has been a part of the success story to help diversify our freshman class.”

Of course, anyone who has worked around higher education in the past two decades knows that many schools take into account “adversity” in their admissions decision, and the College Board’s move merely makes official something that happens unofficially all the time. Moreover, like the admissions scandal earlier this year, this revelation only make evident the opaqueness of the process of admissions into nation’s best colleges. Much of the anger at the rich parents buying their way into Stanford was directed at the perceived harm done to “regular” kids who deserved a spot taken by a child of privilege. In a strange twist, some of the critiques of the College Board’s move is that privileged kids will now lose a spot because they were born with means through no fault of their own. Indeed, as another official put it: “If I am going to make room for more of the [poor and minority] students we want to admit and I have a finite number of spaces, then someone has to suffer and that will be privileged kids on the bubble.”

Of course, the critiques of the AS did not take long in appearing, and one of the more thoughtful ones appeared in Forbes from Michael T. Nietzel, the former president of the University of Kentucky. While accepting that inequality is impacting poor students negatively and that this issues should be addressed, he is against the AS for the following four reasons:

1. The College Board has not revealed the factors or their weights in calculating adversity scores beyond claiming that some of the data are from public sources and some are proprietary.

2. At a time when standardized testing is under increased scrutiny and is even being discontinued or minimized as an admission tool by hundreds of colleges, one must wonder whether adversity scores are primarily an attempt to protect the SAT’s market or to promote social mobility.

3. Measuring neighborhood adversity is not the same as assessing an individual student’s resilience or grit. Although we can’t know for sure, it’s doubtful that adversity scores measure the influence of parents, siblings, and mentors on a student.

4. The fact that the College Board does not want students to know their adversity scores reflects their own discomfort with the concept.

I can see the value and seriousness of Nietzel’s first and fourth critiques (less so with his second and third). The factors that make up the US should be understood, and students have a fundamental right to know what their score is, since it is a factor that shapes their chances admissions. Indeed, reflecting on my own life growing up a poor kid in the South Bronx of the ’80s, I’m pretty sure my own AS would have been off the charts. Ironically, I attended a good college for very wealthy young men whose average AS was probably the opposite of mine. Had this score existed back then, and if I had known it, would I have tried for an Ivy for my undergraduate days? Would my classmates have lost out to more kids like me? Moreover, even without the AS, when I finally got into an Ivy for grad school, was my “perceived AS” the reason?

In reading all the articles on the College Board’s decision, I was reminded of something a very prominent academic friend of mine once said. For him, the most important criteria in admissions was not grades but class rank. His view was (and is) that class rank told you how much someone made of what life had given them to work with. He was adamant that taking a top kid in a class from a mediocre school was better than taking a mediocre kid from a top school. I agree with him, and it strikes me that the AS is just as valid a metric to consider as grades and extra-curricular activities, even after acknowledging the valid criticism agains its use. I say that because at a personal level, the AS is just one small step toward leveling a playing field overwhelmingly tilted to the children of privilege. AS or no, poor kids have a long hill to climb to any kind of parity in their chances of getting into the most elite institutions, and I really doubt too many kids from Chevy Chase or the Upper East Side will be denied admissions to Tier 1 schools because of a low AS.

Beyond the college issues, the articles on the AS this week not only make me consider my own college experience but also made me think about what would happen if a major company, say Apple, announced tomorrow that it too was implementing an adversity score in hiring and promotions, After all, if an adversity score is a sound evolution for college admissions officers to consider, then couldn’t (and won’t) someone make the argument that the same sort of score should be used in corporate hiring? In other words, entry level jobs at places such as Apple, Amazon, and Google are just as scarce as seats in a top freshman class, so shouldn’t companies also consider adversity and inequality when hiring for coveted position? It’s clear that they already openly consider race and gender in hiring and promotions, so why not adversity? Moreover, should adversity join Diversity and Inclusion as issues to be debated and corrected?

This suggestion may seem ridiculous to some readers, but I would not bet against the “transmission” of this debate from academia into the corporate world. Indeed, I wroterecently about a UK study that lays bare the strong push that privileged workers get in elite corporate settings, and one could easily see arguments for a corporate AS to counteract those unfair effects. That may seem a fanciful statements, but to young people leaving college with mountains of debt, an AS that take that debt “adversity” into account would seem very attractive.

In the end, though, what this week’s story continue to make clear is that there is socio-economic battle underway in this country. The admissions scandal and the College Board story show us just how fierce (and increasingly out in the open) that battle is becoming. coveted and economically precious seats in all sorts of elite settings are finite goods. The battle to attain them, once fought behind closed doors is not coming to the fore. Smart HR leaders should pay close attention to this latest development, because it does not take much of a leap of the imagination to see the College Board’s decision start to openly impact corporate hiring in the near, not distant, future.

See this post on LikedIn.

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Carlos Alvarenga

Founder and CEO at KatalystNet and Adjunct Professor in the Logistics, Business and Public Policy Department at the University of Maryland’s Robert E. Smith School of Business.

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