I arrived on Yale University’s campus in the fall of 1988 with a typical mingling of excitement and terror. I’d been a star at my public high school in Alexandria, Virginia, though that pond was small. Now I was in an ocean of brilliance and wealth. I couldn’t calculate my rung on the hierarchy.
Still, I knew I’d crossed into a new world, and I had earned my place in it. The dining halls were wood-paneled. Courtyards were adorned with gargoyles. The common rooms had marble fireplaces. My life on campus was more luxurious than the apartment in which I’d been raised. Some of my classmates seemed accustomed to, even bored by, extravagances that thrilled me.
One young man in my “entryway” — that’s what we called our dorms at Yale — seemed particularly aloof. He was the son of a Fortune 500 CEO. Tall, cocksure and very blond. With a contrived accent trapped somewhere between Boston and London, he embodied my preconception of Yale. I gave his opinions more weight than they deserved because on some level I understood that he spoke for Yale much more than I ever could. So, I was stung when he regularly derided me as an “affirmative-action admit.” In dismissing me and the other 4 percent of campus that was African American, he seemed to be building a moat around us in hopes that our contagion would not spread. And with so much treading through moats, my confidence wobbled.
That school year I added a new word to my vocabulary: “legacy.” I’d never heard it used to describe the son or daughter of an alumnus. But these legacies seemed to be everywhere at Yale. In fact, the young man who diminished me because of my skin color and economic class was a fourth-generation legacy. I soon discovered that such status advantaged him in the admissions process.
Legacy, it turned out, was an age-old affirmative action program for affluent white kids. The swirling debates in Congress and op-ed pages never discussed the unearned privilege that accrued to children of alumni. They never mentioned that on the most selective college campuses, there were often more students from the top 1 percent of earners than from the bottom 60 percent. Instead, they focused on people like me: striving, working-class kids who were desperately trying to build bridges to the institutions of power. The price of admission for many Black, Latino, Native American, working-class and rural students was a granular examination by elites who resented our presence.
Legacy admissions will likely never go away. So, if we’re to “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” and maintain that advantage, we must also “Give to God what is God’s” and prepare more low-income and first-generation students for college. The doors of opportunity run through college campuses. And on some structural level, these doors remain closed to those who most need opportunity.
I have spent the past 30 years working at the intersection of poverty and education, and the question that has vexed me the most has been how to widen the doors of opportunity when confronted with such entrenched inequities. My clearest response to the question is: The poor kids need what the rich kids have.
Since 2015 I’ve led the college and career access division at The College Board. The College Board administers college entrance exams – the PSAT and the SAT – and offers Advanced Placement courses. What’s less well known is that our mission is rooted in changing the systems that prevent low-income and first-generation students from accessing the college opportunities they deserve. (Note: The College Board is a sponsor of The Hechinger Report.)
The College Board is redressing these inequities by making available to all students resources that were once limited to the wealthy. We’ve taken on the high-priced, commercial test-prep industry, for example, by partnering with Khan Academy on an online, personalized, free SAT practice tool. Using Official SAT Practice (OSP), students upload the results of their PSAT and SAT exams and the tool generates personalized lessons. Students who spend a mere 20 hours practicing on OSP see an average score increase of 115 points — often a difference maker in college admissions.
We are also demystifying a convoluted college planning process so complex that some students attend less selective colleges when more selective ones are within reach. Worse yet, too many qualified low-income students don’t attend college at all. In 2018, we launched the College Board Opportunity Scholarships (CBOS), an online tool that breaks college planning into six bite-sized pieces, including completing the FAFSA and practicing for the SAT. By taking these critical steps, students have the opportunity to win scholarships. And students hailing from families with lower incomes have increased chances of winning.
Lastly, we are opposed to the calcifying reality that students born to families with lower incomes are confined to live behind moats — moats that often hinder their ability to attend college. We have developed the Environmental Context Dashboard (ECD) to assist college admissions offices in fully considering the complex fabric that enwraps a student’s journey. A student from an inner-city high school, or a student from a small Appalachian town where jobs are evaporating, faces daunting obstacles on the path to college. The ECD allows colleges to give students credit in the admissions process for the challenges they have overcome.
Some reports have inaccurately described the ECD as an “adversity score” or mistakenly claimed that the ECD alters a student’s SAT score. This is simply untrue. The ECD does show a student’s SAT score in comparison to others in his or her high school, which affords admissions officers a better gauge of a student’s resourcefulness. And it provides admissions officers with better context about an applicant’s neighborhood and high school.
Incidents such as those exposed in the recent college admissions scandals are relatively rare. Systems that inhibit social mobility for millions are far more common. The College Board does not pretend to have all of the answers to these complex challenges. And we aren’t able to give poor kids all of the resources that rich kids have. But we serve millions of students every year, and we are dedicated to addressing systemic inequities.
College is the surest door to the middle class. It should not revert to being a luxury good attainable only by the privileged few. We invite others to join us in recommitting to the promise of higher education.
This story about addressing systemic inequities in U.S. college admissions was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
Steve Bumbaugh is senior vice president, college and career access, at The College Board, overseeing the organization’s enrollment and financial aid programs, including CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE, Student Search Service, the Access to Opportunity initiative and scholarship programs. A graduate of Yale University, Bumbaugh holds an MBA from Stanford University.