Getting into College w/o the SAT

Getting into college has always required more than intelligence and good grades. For the last 50 or so years, it has also required performing well on a test—usually the feared SAT. Far from leveling the playing field, the SAT and colleges’ reliance on the SAT[1] have created yet another mechanism for affluent families to reassert their status and ensure their own privilege. Families that can afford it hire test-preparation tutors to coach Little Johnny or Little Jane—here on the Main Line, rates start at the unimaginable $150/hour and extend beyond $400/hour if you want your tutor to be called “Dr. So-and-So.”[2]

I applaud Bard College’s effort to upend the admissions process by offering applicants an alternative route to admission. Bard hasn’t rejected the SAT and GPA, but now allows students who worry that their scores or grades are not high enough to write research essays. Bard provides a choice of questions and all the material necessary to write a good essay. These essays are then evaluated according to Bard’s standards and all students performing well enough will be admitted. Or so Bard promises.

Bard hasn’t solved all the problems with college admissions, but as a parent I welcome Bard’s effort to undermine the hegemony of the SAT. I would like to see other “liberal arts” colleges combat the SAT’s dominance in the admissions process.[3] As a parent who wants to believe in education but who cannot afford to spend $5,000 or more on subject tutors, academic coaches, test-preparation tutors or test-preparation camp,[4] or college-admissions coaching, I hope Bard sets a trend.

  1. Even colleges that claim to look for markers of a well rounded student or that claim to use the SAT along with other criteria continue to reinforce the test’s importance by highlighting the scores on publicly available documents that go by names such as ‘Characteristics of Entering Class’ or ‘Facts about Incoming Freshmen’. Any parent guiding their progeny toward these schools will find tables and tables of SAT and ACT scores. And students in high school already recognize the importance of those tests.  ↩

  2. It takes little thought to see why people with advanced degrees start tutoring businesses. In at least one case a person with a law degree from a nationally recognized school has recognized that tutoring is more lucrative. Since few parents will issue IRS 1099 forms to tutors, that $150-$400/hour translates into a considerably higher real-world wage. Assuming full-time work, which most tutors probably don’t enjoy, some back-of-the-envelop calculations suggest that those hourly rates put a person in the 33–39% federal tax bracket. Ignoring state, social security, and other taxes, that increases the real-world wage to $200-$550/hour. Sure, test preparation/tutoring centers will, we hope, report all revenue and have to pay their tutors, no doubt at a lower rate and they probably treat them as contract labor so they don’t withhold taxes. An energetic and purportedly qualified (whatever qualified means in this context) tutor could hustle up a healthy $100,000+ annually working part-time. This number would nearly triple if those “qualifications” include “Dr.”
    Along with the test-preparation industry is the college-admissions coaching industry that plays on parental fears and traffics in platitudes and publicly available knowledge typically redescribed as “expert” or “private and privileged” knowledge. Rates for these coaching sessions, while not yet as high as test-preparation tutoring are stratospheric for the services offered.  ↩

  3. I use scare quotes around “liberal arts” because that term no longer accurately describes many of the colleges we think provide a liberal arts education. Increasingly, the small, elite “liberal arts” colleges have given up on the ideal, broad-based educational program we typically associate with that term. Ever diminishing distribution requirements no longer ensure that students take classes outside their chosen major. Now students can and do track their academic career from the first semester, even at colleges where they cannot officially declare a major until their second year. Increasingly, students graduate having focused the vast majority of their coursework in whatever subject they chose as 18-year-olds. Graduating seniors are well educated but only in a single, narrow field.  ↩

  4. Yes, there are test-preparation camps, which run ca. $1,000/week. No, that price doesn’t include room and board. I assume everybody gets a T-shirt.  ↩