“It’s literally affecting every application we look at.”

By Paul Culp, MA (Oxon.), CFT, GCDF, CCSP

A few days ago, we wrote about The New Fashion: Test-Optional Admissions, a policy intended to promote diversity and benefit college applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds. Research findings differ regarding whether it achieves this aim or has the opposite effect. Our recurring thought has been that the burgeoning trend toward test-optional admissions is a loaded gun pointed at the heads of the SAT and ACT, and now, in what looks very much like an attempt at self-preservation, the College Board, which owns and administers the SAT, is adding an “adversity score” to the test.

According to a Wall Street Journal report published today, the College Board intends to “try to capture [the applicant’s] social and economic background, jumping into the debate raging over race and class in college admissions.”

The new measurement, which has already been beta-tested by 50 colleges, takes into account 15 factors, including neighborhood environment, family environment, and high school environment. Crime rate, poverty rate, housing values, median income, whether the household is single-parent or two-parent, and free-lunch rate are among the elements in the equation.

The figure will appear on an “Environmental Context Dashboard” as “Overall Disadvantage Level.” Students will not see the adversity scores, but admissions officers will. The dean of admissions at Yale, one of the beta testers, says the adversity score “is literally affecting every application we look at.”

In the words of the WSJ, “The College Board declined to say how it calculates the adversity score or weighs the factors that go into it. The data that informs the score comes from public records such as the U.S. Census as well as some sources proprietary to the College Board.”

A former College Board employee who now heads Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce indicated that the adversity score was associated with the possibility of a Supreme Court decision banning race-based affirmative action.

“The purpose is to get to race without using race,” said Anthony Carnevale.

The College Board plans to extend the use of the score to 150 institutions this fall and then apply it “broadly” in 2020. It attempted a similar initiative 20 years ago, under the direction of Carnevale, but dropped the matter after encountering resistance from colleges.

The non-profit College Board says that white students scored an average of 177 points higher than black students last year and 133 points higher than Hispanic students, while Asians outscored whites by 100 points. The test has a minimum total score of 400 to 1600, comprising math and verbal sections scored from 200 to 800 each. Children of college-educated and wealthy parents outscore those whose parents could not be so described.

“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,” said John Barnhill, assistant vice president for academic affairs at Florida State.

Not to be outdone, the ACT is “investing significant resources” in the development of a comparable metric.


Here at The Coaching Educator, we’ve spent the last decade—and a little bit more—keeping up with breaking news and developing trends in college admissions and financial aid. That means our student/clients can be assured of knowing what to do, and when, and how. To learn more about our philosophy and capabilities, be sure to watch our free webinars, listen to our podcasts, sign up for our four-week College App Boot Camp, consider our Ultimate Programs and our special services for athletes and performing-arts students, and book a consultation to hear what we can do for you and how we do it. Keep reading this blog, and look for us on social media (see links below) as we keep our clients and admirers advised of new developments in our effort to help students get into and succeed at the right school.

Paul Culp is certified as a global career development facilitator and writes about college admissions, college costs, financial aid, and college life in general for The Coaching Educator team. A former journalist and corporate ghostwriter who now operates Shenandoah Proofreading, Editing & Composition Services (SPECS), he has also been a humanities teacher at all levels from university down to sixth grade. Paul has degrees from Oxford University, Jacksonville State University, and Samford University, and also is certified as a fitness trainer.

Photo: Stephan Medina

Recommended Reading About College Admissions

Culp, Paul. “Free College Wouldn’t Really Be Free. Is it Coming Anyway?” The Coaching Educator, 27 March 2019, http://tce.local/2019/03/27/free-college-wouldnt-be-free-is-it-coming-anyway/

Culp, Paul. “If You Didn’t ACT But Just SAT There: The Difference Between the Two Tests,” The Coaching Educator, 27 September 2018, http://tce.local/2018/09/27/if-you-didnt-act-but-just-sat-there-the-difference-between-the-two-tests/

Culp, Paul. “Meet the Deciders: College Admissions Officers and What They Do,” The Coaching Educator, 27 October 2018, http://tce.local/2018/10/27/meet-the-deciders-college-admissions-officers-and-what-they-do/

Culp, Paul. “The New Fashion: Test-Optional Admissions,” The Coaching Educator, 10 May 2019, http://tce.local/2019/05/10/the-new-fashion-test-optional-admissions/

Culp, Paul. “Technology, Intangibles, and the Brave New World of College Admissions,” The Coaching Educator, 29 May 2018, http://tce.local/2018/05/29/technology-intangibles-and-the-brave-new-world-of-college-admissions/

Support smart students and spread the word:
Follow us on: