Lots of news stories yesterday and today tell us that the College Board is adding an “adversity score” — looking at crime, poverty, and other demographic data from students’ neighborhoods and high schools — to the SAT scores it reports to universities for their applicants. This has attracted much attention and comment, so allow a poor but somewhat honest lawyer to put in his two cents’ worth.
The principal point I’ll make is that, as a legal matter, this is of limited interest. In admitting students, schools are free to take into account pretty much whatever they like, with the notable exception of race — though of course race is the elephant in the room here. So if the index does not consider race, as we’re told by the College Board it does not, and is not used by schools as a proxy for race, then there’s no legal issue. And if race is considered, either directly by the College Board or as a proxy for race by schools using the index, then for now schools will defend that consideration as narrowly permitted by the Supreme Court. On the other hand, when the happy day arrives that the Court says that race may not be considered, then that will prevent schools from considering it directly, and from deliberately choosing other criteria that serve as a proxy for race, and from having a middleman like the College Board do the direct or indirect discrimination for them.
I’m agnostic on what the College Board is really up to, and it might have mixed motives, as we say in the antidiscrimination biz. I suspect a large part of what’s going on here is addressing the problem of more and more schools dropping the SAT requirement, because of the problems its consideration poses for achieving “diversity.” By providing this index, the College Board encourages schools to keep using the test by giving them another tool that can lead to more politically correct numbers. So the main motive may be neither black nor white but green.
I’m willing to believe, too, that the College Board is also motivated in part by the recognition that two students with identical SAT scores can have different academic potentials — if, say, student A got his score in a highly supportive environment that included well-paid tutors and the like, while student B got his score while dodging bullets at home and at school. That’s an unexceptionable point, but the problem is that, if one took it seriously, then one would look most carefully at the home and family environment of the individual student, but the new index ignores all that and instead considers only the more general environment of the school and neighborhood.
Trouble is, the logical approach that would recognize individual adversities would not only be more expensive, which is a problem for the College Board, but might well lead to a lot of those pesky Asian Americans, to say nothing of hillbilly whites, getting index scores as high or higher than African Americans and Latinos, which is what do-gooding schools are really after. I should note, too, that anything that diminishes the consideration given to actual merit will lead to mismatch; there’s also the moral hazard of encouraging parents to put or keep their children in environments that are bad for them but good for their index scores.