UPDATE: This blog was posted in May 2019, and on August 28, 2019 word came from the College Board that they had heard parents’ concerns and made the decision to not include the Adversity Index in its consideration of student college applications.


We’ve been hearing so much about the college admissions process lately, most recently the scandal dubbed “Varsity Blues” involving parents paying large sums of money to get their children into the college of their choice.

A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal published an article outlining a new change to the SAT scoring algorithm: the Adversity Index. This is a score assigned to students based on their socioeconomic status to determine if they are advantaged or disadvantaged.

This process has been in beta testing in 50 colleges, expanding to 150 colleges this year, and will be available to all colleges and universities by 2020. So it’s here.

Adversity Index

What is the Adversity Index?  On a scale of 1 to 100, it is a score assigned to a student that factors in economic issues, such as how many students qualify for the free lunch program and how stable the housing is in a particular zip code, and educational factors such as availability of AP courses, graduation rates and percentages of students who go on to college after high school.

The stated purpose of this index is to give students a boost who come from high crime or poverty areas, as well as other factors such as coming from a single parent household. Basically it’s a “hardship” measurement, intended to help students who come from difficult circumstances. The higher the score, the more disadvantaged the student is perceived to be.

Supporters of the Index say that the addition of it will improve disadvantaged students’ access to college and will help colleges diversify their student bodies.

Critics of the Index argue that the addition of it is an admission that the SAT is unfair, and that efforts should be made to somehow make the test more fair than trying to manipulate scores within certain contexts.

I have a lot of thoughts about the state of the entire college admissions process. I grew up in another era, one in which there was no paid test prep to speak of, and I don’t even remember students taking the SAT more than once if they weren’t happy with their score.

I was educated in a strong public school system, we took the test, accepted our scores and applied to colleges. I realize that my background leaves me without much exposure to the challenges disadvantaged students face.

This whole maniacal fixation on “fairness” seems hell bent on ensuring equal outcomes rather than equal opportunity. Everyone should have equal access to the process of applying to college, but isn’t that where the student then takes over and makes the most of the opportunity? Once the opportunity is there, the student has a responsibility to take advantage of resources, and represent their accomplishments in the best way possible.

Adversity Index

The flaw I see in the addition of an Adversity Index like this is that by definition, it would suggest that students who are considered to have come from an adverse background are probably not as prepared for college as those who are not labeled as having been educated in adverse circumstances. So what happens when these students, with their adjusted scores, get into college?

It’s one thing to get INTO college, while STAYING in college is an entirely different matter altogether. Is it setting these students up to fail if they are admitted to college and are unprepared for the rigors of the course work? Will there be systems in place at colleges to help these students handle the challenges?

Another possible problem with the Adversity Index is how it is calculated. Is it possible to make correct assumptions about individual students based on data gleaned from zip codes, graduation rates, and free lunch recipients?

When our daughter was young, we did not live in a strong school district, so we chose private school for her. Based on the statistics for that area, we may have been designated as disadvantaged, but that was not the case for us individually. Surely there are exceptions in every area and making sweeping generalizations does not accurately portray every student.

There is a lot that can be gleaned from demographic information that may well give an accurate picture of a student’s advantage/privilege or lack thereof, but there is no perfect system to conceptualize it.

While this Adversity Index is making an appearance, there is also a movement afoot by some colleges to make the submission of test scores with one’s application optional. In February of this year, Bucknell University, a private liberal arts college in Pennsylvania announced that it would no longer require students to submit SAT or ACT scores with their application. Quite a few schools have followed suit. So what becomes the standard by which students are admitted?

Along with all the gaming of the system that has been revealed lately in the college admissions scandal, there is also a little something called the 504 Designation, which is legal and allows a student to qualify for accommodations, namely up to 50% more time to take the SAT and ACT. According to a report by CBS News, the number of students at wealthy high schools who qualify for this designation is more than twice the number of students who qualify from less advantaged schools.

I think we all know what is going on here.

This was a favorite tactic of the guy who was the mastermind behind the Varsity Blues scandal. Having students qualify for extra time would place them in separate rooms, which made it easier to use test proctors who could be “bought” or use someone else to take the test for the student.

The 504 Designation was originally created to keep students with actual disabilities from being discriminated against, but as with so many other things, scammers have found ways to manipulate the system. Families with the means to do so can hire consultants to assess their child and recommend they be given the special designation. I am sure for the right price, designations abound.

I have never thought that standardized tests were necessarily a good indicator of intelligence or a predictor of college success. Some students are great test takers, others are not. I have read that there are plans to eliminate the essay portion of the SAT, but I have always thought the essay could tell you more about a student than the multiple choice sections of the test. But there are those who are not strong writers, so my suggestion to place a high value on the essay portion would put these students at a disadvantage.

I also don’t think that one’s socioeconomic background necessarily predetermines outcomes. There are plenty of people who came from privileged backgrounds who crash and burn, and conversely, there are people who come from very trying childhoods who overcome and go on to become very successful.

That being said, I do understand that children who grow up in disadvantaged environments do tend to have limited access to test prep, state of the art technology, and educational resources. The Adversity Index is actually only addressing a symptom of the greater problem, which is the disadvantaged’s access to and quality of educational opportunities.

I still think that there ought to be a way to conduct college admissions as blind auditions like on “The Voice.” 🙂 No names, no ethnic background information, no socioeconomic information. Just the student, with a retinal scan to enter the test (since we’ve learned it is necessary to make sure it is actually the student taking the test and not a test-taker-for-hire), and then a Q and A session with admissions people to find out more about the student.

Adversity Index

Maybe I am naive, but I have always believed that almost everything, and most certainly college admission, should be meritocratic. We should have the things we have and accomplish the things we accomplish based on our hard work, abilities, dedication, a culmination of good decisions, and merit.

The world is not yet a level playing field. Maybe one day it will be when all the kids who grew up playing soccer where no score was kept and trophies were given out just for showing up are running the world. But until that time, students really need to understand and be taught to cope with the reality that life isn’t fair. Not all things are equal. College isn’t for everyone. And that’s okay. Students shouldn’t be forced into college and placed in the middle of ethically compromised situations because their neurotic parents need bragging rights.

I also am concerned that this push toward boosting scores to factor in adversity is a bit of a punishment of sorts for students who by no action of their own are not considered disadvantaged. There are students whose parents have worked long and hard to provide a stable educational environment and who are prepared for college whose scores will now be adjusted, and not in their favor.

I comprehend the thought process behind taking a number of factors into consideration when evaluating students. I just don’t think it should be at the expense of other students.

It’s kind of like how we as parents feel when meeting with financial aid advisers at colleges to talk about how to pay for everything and we’re told we make too much money to qualify for much financial aid. Too much money? What parent trying to pay for college feels that they have too much money? None I know. I don’t hear parents sitting around saying, “You know, we just made TOO MUCH MONEY this year. We need to take it down a notch.” 🙂

Every parent I know could use as much financial aid as possible to help pay for college. Especially if you have more than one child in school at the same time. Yet because you work hard and try to save and be responsible you are told you make too much money. No such thing.

All of this score manipulation feels a bit like the rumblings of socialism among newly elected members of Congress. Any attempts to level everything to a single common denominator poses the danger of disincentivizing everyone. Those who strive and accomplish may say, “Why try? My accomplishments are only going to be redistributed.” And those who don’t try so hard may say, “Why try? I’ll get mine no matter what.” Bad idea.

I think the college admissions process has lost its mind. It has become ridiculous and the lengths to which students and parents go to secure test scores and admission are beyond comprehension. I don’t have the answer as to how to fix it short of scrapping the whole system and starting over. One thing I know is that I’m glad we are past that whole part of the college experience.

I’m also pretty sure that with the addition of this Adversity Index, the next thing we’re going to see is a bunch of competitive parents Photoshopping their children into adverse scenarios, replacing rowing crew with dumpster diving.

If the SAT is looming in your child’s future, be aware that there are changes on the horizon. Do you have thoughts on the changes? Feel free to share them in the comment section.

And I’d love for you to follow me on Pinterest!

Adversity Index



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