Class Warfare Comes to College Admissions

Wake Forest University’s recent decision to no longer require applicants for admission to submit SAT scores is part of a growing national trend. This policy change is not about shifting to “more reliable predictors of success,” as administrators claim. It is instead about a fundamental change in world views, and about class warfare as well.

Those who believe that society should be a meritocracy, where achievement is the main criterion for reward, should be concerned about the trade-off implied by the policy change. Wake Forest Provost Jill Tiefenthaler lauded the new policy for removing “that barrier” (of low SAT scores) “for many worthy students.” But it will also erect new barriers of class or race for many others who are at least as worthy. Most of those denied admission because of the tests’ elimination will have high SAT scores and other accomplishments that indicate they are more likely to thrive at a highly competitive university such as Wake Forest than those newly granted access. However, because they are mostly white or Asian applicants from high-income families their greater fitness for such universities will be trumped by their undesirable group status.

This is not a problem for many in academia who are predisposed to favor “equal outcomes” as the standard for organizing society and the educational system. It is likely that many take delight in such “leveling” of the upper-middle class and wealthy.

One of the prime motivators of the new policy is Wake Forest sociology professor Joseph Soares and his 2007 book, The Power of Privilege. In the press release announcing the policy change, Tiefenthaler stated: “Dr. Soares presents a compelling argument that reliance on the SAT and other standardized tests for admission is a major barrier to access for many students.”

However, Soares’ argument is less compelling when subjected to critical examination. And the suggestion that standardized tests are poor predictors of academic success is not true.

Soares actually does not recommend dropping standardized tests altogether as Tiefenthaler said he does, but argues instead that tests intended to measure aptitude should be dropped in favor of tests that measure what is learned in high school. His book relies heavily on a 2001 study of the University of California system by Saul Geiser and Roger Studley. Soares wrote, “[T]he easy and socially biased option of relying on aptitude tests has been discredited by the University of California.”

However, that study does not discredit SAT tests as poor predictors of college grades; it merely states that SAT II tests (which measure achievement) are better predictors of college grade point averages than the SAT I tests (which are intended to measure raw aptitude).

The noted researcher and author on human intelligence Charles Murray was also swayed to favor the SAT II tests over the SAT I by the Geiser and Studley report. Yet Murray took pains to point out that the degree of correlation between the two SAT tests is an extremely high .85 (with 1.00 meaning perfect correlation and 0 signifying no relation between the two). Such high correlation indicates that if one test is a good predictor, the other is fairly equivalent.

Indeed, the preponderance of evidence indicates that SAT I tests do a credible job of predicting how well a high school student will do at a particular institution. Robert Sternberg, a psychology professor and dean at Tufts University, said in a 2001 book that “a wide variety of studies have shown the usefulness of the SAT(I) as a predictor of college success.” He noted that a “meta-analysis” of about 3,000 studies confirmed its role in predicting the first-year GPA.

In a 2002 article in Capitalism Magazine, Thomas Sowell provided a stark example of the predictive power of SAT scores by showing that group differences in SAT scores can predict group differences in graduation rates. At the University of Colorado at Boulder, the average SAT scores of white students were more than 200 points higher than for black students. This was reflected in the two groups’ graduation rates: 72 percent for whites but only 39 percent for blacks. At the University of Colorado at Denver, however, the difference in SAT scores was a mere 30 points, and graduation rates were also nearly equal: 50 percent for whites and 48 percent for blacks.

Soares’ biggest objection to the SAT I tests is not their (incorrectly assumed) failure to predict college performance accurately. Rather, it is the correlation between SAT scores and family income: youths from prosperous families tend to score very well on standardized tests, while those at lower income levels generally lag behind. He suggests that bias is behind much of this discrepancy.

Soares views the world through a prism of class, borrowing heavily from French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of “dominant class perpetuation.” He even portrays the SAT I as part of some devious plot to maintain the upper classes in their position of advantage: “The SAT proved not to be very useful until it provided a meritocratic way to fill the applicant pool with privileged youths.”

So steeped is Soares in the rhetoric of class struggle that he fails to see that no such dominant class exists in America. In a meritocracy like the U.S. that rewards intelligence, smart people gravitate to the best schools and best-paying professional and corporate jobs. To borrow Murray’s terminology, they form a “cognitive elite.” They marry their equally gifted classmates and co-workers and pass on their innate abilities and successful habits to their children.

But this does not mean the cognitive elite is a “self-perpetuating dominant class,” in the sense that Soares uses it. Their demographics cut across all racial, ethnic, religious, and political lines. Membership is dynamic, not static: it is completely welcoming to new talent, and dismissive of anybody, including family members, without the requisite intelligence (and the ambition to apply it). They do not perpetuate themselves as a class, but individually seek the best lives for their children.

Soares’ suggested policy solutions also reveal his intense focus on class. “Elite colleges should adopt Berkeley-style socio-economics admissions policies,” he writes, adding that, “the case has been made for class-based affirmative action.”

Other solutions proposed by Soares will chip away at the traditional meritocratic foundations of admissions policy. Despite his call to “revamp” rather than eliminate standardized testing, he favors policy changes that will effectively neutralize one of the most important functions of such testing—to impartially judge the relative merits of individuals at different schools whose grades are similar.

“Over the decades, one of the most reliable indicators of college performance is not the SAT or even high school grade point average but rank in class,” Soares declares, but nowhere in the entire book does he cite any evidence for this. He recommends that the top tenth of every high school class be “admissible” at elite colleges. The impracticality of such a blanket application of class rank as a measure is immediately apparent—it equates the rank at an extremely competitive school filled with high achievers to the same rank at an inferior school where many of the graduates are barely literate.

Using such a flawed standard will likely result in more talented, better prepared students being denied admission to favor the less able. Three scenarios are likely for schools suffering a wholesale drop in quality: the university must lower its standards across the board, the ill-prepared students will be “ghettoized” into weaker academic programs, such as sociology, or such students will have a high rate of failure, as in the University of Colorado at Boulder example above.

Ironically, Wake Forest intends to substitute the very sort of subjective measures, such as personal interviews and “evidence of character and talent,” that Soares criticized Yale for in his book (he claims they were used to perpetuate upper class privilege). And Wake Forest’s subjectivity goes far beyond Yale’s, since Yale used these subjective measures in conjunction with standardized tests. (Wake Forest will only use SAT tests for admissions decisions only if the applicant volunteers his or her scores.)

But such inconsistencies do not seem to matter when there are political goals like achieving diversity in store. Soares recommends that all elite colleges reserve 25 percent of their seats for students from the bottom two-fifths in family income. Background, or class, has as much or greater importance than achievement in an egalitarian system.

For all the high-blown rhetoric about creating a fairer standard, the policy change against required SAT scores will instead make admissions more arbitrary and politically expedient. And it is one more incremental change away from a tradition that uses the fairest measure of all, merit, toward one where membership in a politically favored group is key.