SAT Adversity Score Will Lead to Impersonal University Admissions

By now you’ve likely heard of the new SAT “adversity score.” This score will be reported to college admissions offices for applicants by the College Board. It’s official name is the Environmental Context Dashboard; however, unofficially, the public is calling it the “adversity score.”

Essentially the College Board takes a few dozen data points about a student’s school and neighborhood. From those factors, a score, ranging from 1-100, is calculated. The College Board is not sharing the specifics on the methodology.

So Now, Should I Admit a 3.2, 1180 with 62 Adversity?

Some, like Richard D. Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation, are touting it as a step forward in leveling the playing field of college admissions. He states, ”Universities say they want to provide a leg up to disadvantaged students who have overcome obstacles, yet today, because of firewalls between financial aid and admissions departments, admissions officers often have to guess about who is economically disadvantaged . . . The environmental dashboard will help them see better.”

Others, like Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute, say it’s a poorly veiled proxy for race. She states it is “a back door to racial quotas in college admissions.” John Boeckenstedt, AVP of Enrollment Management for DePaul University, actually called the rollout of the new score a “sh*tstorm.”

As someone who worked in admissions for 20 years, you can imagine I have feelings about the score. Honestly, they are mixed and complicated feelings. I agree with pieces of almost every article I read, but none entirely. Additionally, I’m still forming my opinion of exactly why this score was developed and what consequences might come from it.

What I can share are some concerns about what this score could do to the process of reviewing student applications. I know what it’s like to flip and/or scroll through a college application and then have to render a decision. How will that process change now?


Adversity is defined as “a state or instance of serious or continued difficulty or misfortune.” College Board seems to define adversity differently. Their adversity score seems to be mostly a measure for socioeconomic disadvantage and a proxy for race. While not unimportant factors to consider in the process of reviewing applicants for college admissions, those certainly aren’t the only factors I would use to describe adversity.

RELATED: SAT Adversity Score: College Board Announces New Measure

What about the kid who grows up in an amazing neighborhood but whose big brother has severe disabilities that have encompassed his parents’ attention for the past 18 years? Or the kid who lived a life of economic privilege but who has battled and beaten cancer twice? Then what about the Black kid who lives in the nicest neighborhood but has experienced bullying and racism every day?

The new score is very narrowly defined. It will give admissions officers one more quantitative score to make judgments that should have been made through a more thorough means of review.


The SAT adversity score also feels redundant. Every year I schlepped myself and hundreds of pounds of marketing materials around to high schools in my territory. It only takes one school visit to have an understanding of it. You see whether most students are experiencing a life of privilege or disadvantage. It’s also not difficult to gauge the racial composition of a school when you’re actually there walking through the hallways.

Incidentally, similar information is also almost always provided on the high school profile that accompanies the high school transcript. I can’t help but think that any “adversity score” would be a general affirmation of what admissions officers already know.

Providing a score to somehow quantify “adversity” could be counterproductive by giving reviewers a false sense of confidence in their judgment. It encourages relying on an easy-to-read quantitative and generalized measure. It diminishes the importance of taking the time to actually review each applicant as an individual in the context of their own schools and experiences.


What’s most disheartening about the idea of this score is that it works against the idea that each applicant should be treated as an individual.

Application review should be truly holistic and, then by definition, include some forms of qualitative and subjective review. The point of a college application with personal records and essays is that you are judged as an individual and not a stereotype. This new adversity score is a generalization based on where you live and what school you attend. It’s essentially saying that you are no different than your neighbor. You’ve all grown up in the same place so you must have experienced the same level of adversity.

RELATED: NYTimes Opinion: The SAT’s Bogus ‘Adversity Score’

Universities are increasingly focusing on how to speed up the review of applications: create efficiencies, maximize output, etc. This practice will mean quantifying everything: score an essay, standardize a GPA, scale an SAT/ACT, create a formula. An additional quantitative data point seems like just one more way to maximize efficiencies of a review process. Eventually the process could be automated.

It might be old school, but I believe an application must include thoughtful and qualitative and yes, subjective, review. From what I know about the SAT adversity score, it feels like another step away from treating applicants as individuals.

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