Toward more equitable admissions

Mount Holyoke professor’s research finds that college admissions essays are even more strongly linked to socioeconomic status than test scores.

By Keely Savoie Sexton 

In a bid to make their admissions processes more equitable, many colleges and universities have stopped requiring standardized testing, because student scores are strongly tied to their socioeconomic status. 

But Benjamin Gebre-Medhin, assistant professor of sociology, recently co-authored a study that suggests that eliminating test requirements is only the beginning of making college admissions more equitable. 

Gebre-Medhin and the research team used computational text analysis to determine the relationship between essay content and household income. They found that essay content was even more strongly associated with household income than SAT scores.

“Our findings lead us to conclude that doing away with standardized testing, while a potentially laudable step that some pioneering colleges like Mount Holyoke have taken, can only go so far toward realizing a truly equitable admissions process,” said Gebre-Medhin.

A number of news outlets have covered this research, including The Economist and Fox News. The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal used the findings to argue that basing college admissions on “‘soft’ rather than numerical criteria won’t be more equitable or progressive.” This interpretation, Gebre-Medhin believes, misconstrues the struggle for fairness and equity in college admissions.

“Any meaningful admissions reform must acknowledge the powerful and pervasive manner in which family resources and privilege condition access to the things that are valued in the academy,” he said. 

“Earning a college degree is an important step toward economic security in the contemporary economy. Until well-resourced, affordable and high-quality post-secondary education is broadly accessible to all qualified students in America, conditions of scarcity are likely to intensify inequality no matter what measures of merit are used in college admissions.”