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Applicants Navigating Uncertainty During FAFSA Delays as Colleges Turn Back to SAT/ACT Scores After Affirmative Action Ban

A quickly evolving college admissions landscape is casting uncertainty on the looming application cycle. Current high school seniors witnessed the end of race-conscious admissions last year after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law allowing institutions to consider race as one of many factors in making admissions decisions.

Dr. Anthony Abraham JackDr. Anthony Abraham JackNow students of color are set to face another change that could impact diversity on college campuses as news of the resurrection of standardized testing requirements at some of the nation’s preeminent institutions is making headlines.

Students of color are “right at the crosshairs of both of these changes,” said Dr. Anthony Abraham Jack, director of Boston University’s Newbury Center, which aims to help first-generation students at the university succeed. “We are now seeing a revival of dismissing and sweeping under the rug of the very history that now our laws cannot take into consideration."

Jack authored the 2019 book, The Privileged Poor, which explores the challenges students face while navigating the nuances of life on elite college campuses.

Yet another change is exerting an even more immediate impact on college hopefuls. Updates to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form intended to simplify the process caused months of delays that are keeping prospective students from solidifying their post-high school plans. The federal government has not sent many institutions the information necessary for making assessments about how much money students need.

“That is probably the biggest thing that has impacted students of color in the process this year, and what we predict is probably going to keep most kids out of college,” said Dr. Angel Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Rates of FAFSA submissions among students attending high-minority high schools dropped by nearly 46% year-over-year by February 2024, according to Fitch Ratings data published in March.

Though there may be fewer students of color arriving on college campuses this fall, “we don't know if that's because of the Supreme Court decision, or if it's because hundreds of thousands of students have not been able to file the FAFSA,” Pérez said.

Amid skyrocketing tuition costs and without information about the amount of federal student aid they will receive, some students may not be able to pursue college at all, he said. “If we don't make up for that huge loss, we are probably going to see hundreds of thousands of students not enrolling [this fall] … And the majority of those people will be people of color,” Pérez said.

The impacts of the delays on students of color compounded by the affirmative action ban may make it harder for institutions to diversify their student populations. Data from states with pre-existing affirmative action bans forecast potential declines in minority student enrollment at some colleges and universities in the aftermath of the ruling.

“Rolling back affirmative action will fundamentally change the practices that universities use to create a diverse class. And I believe it will also lower the upper bounds of how diverse those classes will be,” Jack said.

The major change echoes broader shifts in university admissions criteria. More than 80% of four-year colleges did not require applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores for fall 2023 admission. The move toward de-emphasizing standardized test scores began before 2020, fueled by concerns about fairness given the scores’ relation to socioeconomic status, then picked up momentum amid COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns.

Dr. Angel PérezDr. Angel PérezBut this year, private, state, and Ivy League colleges alike, including MIT, Dartmouth, Brown University, and the University of Tennessee are among the institutions walking back their decisions not to require applicants to submit scores.

In justifying the decision to bring back standardized tests, universities cite that the scores are good predictors of first-year college grades. An early 2024 study by Opportunity Insights found SAT and ACT scores to be better predictors of college grades than high school GPA.

But a long history of research has found the SAT to be really great at measuring something completely different — parental income.

White household wealth sits at more than seven times that of Black households. Families with less disposable income may struggle to access the same preparation materials, books, and tutors more affluent parents use to boost their children’s scores. Income may also drive the quality of the K-12 schools that students can attend and impact how prepared they are to take standardized tests.

The lasting effects of poverty and inequality on college applicants are glaring, Jack said.

“We have to understand the cumulative effect of that, not just the cumulative effect of poverty, but the cumulative effect of privilege,” said Jack, citing the 2019 Varsity Blues scandal in which wealthy parents schemed to ensure their children's admittance to elite institutions.

While the share of schools that have reinstated standardized testing requirements remains limited mostly to elite institutions, Pérez said students may be better served by ensuring they submit the FAFSA than stressing over the SAT.

“What I keep trying to remind students is that, while there's a lot of change in the higher education landscape, the majority of schools are still interested in you, first and foremost,” said Pérez, adding that students should focus on factors within their control, including grades, extracurricular activities, and application essays.

Jack called on colleges and universities to step up to maintain diverse campuses during this period of challenges and change. “They need to rethink what it means to do community outreach. They need to figure out how to engage, not just individual students, but their families and the schools they attend.”

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