UC Berkeley students on campus in front of Dwinelle Hall. UC has not embraced the new College Board tool for admission. (Photo by Alison Yin/EdSource)

Embrace the new “adversity score” in college admissions or ignore it?

That’s a question that college officials in California and nationwide are debating now.

A College Board-sponsored index that measures hardships students face at their high schools and in their neighborhoods is being tested as a college admissions tool on a small-scale nationwide and is expected to be available to all colleges in 2020.

Using federal data and other sources, it gathers 31 socio-economic statistics about a student’s home census tract and high school, such as income levels, crime and educational achievements. It then creates a single 1 to 100 score — a so-called adversity index — for the student. The higher the score, the more hardship a student has likely faced. Colleges can use the score in any way to help evaluate candidates for their freshman classes, or reject it.

The index is receiving a mixed reception so far in California’s higher education world and it appears unlikely that it will be widely adopted soon in the state, particularly at the large public university systems.

Some small, private liberal arts colleges say they found it helped to find promising candidates who might otherwise go unnoticed.

At Pomona College, for example, the index allowed the college to better evaluate students from rural and large urban high schools that admissions officers might not be able to visit, according to Adam Sapp, admissions director and assistant vice president of the college.

“We found the dashboard really gives us an extra lens to see those students,” he said

In contrast, the index faces an uphill climb to gain acceptance in admissions offices at public universities in the state. That is in part because the 10-campus University of California already considers some similar data it collects on its own while the 23-campus California State University has such an immense application pool that it would be too difficult to apply the index, officials report.

The College Board’s Environmental Context Dashboard (ECD), as it is formally named, is supposed to help judge applicants’ achievements in the context of such factors in their census tract as unemployment, average income, home ownership and crime statistics. It also looks at their high schools for, among other items, the percentage of low-income students and college attendance rates.

While the project received a lot of publicity last spring, the index is actually entering its third year of testing. It will expand from 50 participating schools to 150 in the soon-to-begin admissions cycle for students seeking to start college in fall 2020. Plans call for it to be available to all colleges for free the following year.

Beyond the socio-economic data, it also places a student’s SAT or ACT scores in a ranking of overall test scores at their high schools, but does not alter those scores. So far students are not told their adversity index score, although that may change since some educators have advocated more transparency.

Colleges are free to do whatever they want with the adversity score, according to the College Board, the organization which also administers the SAT exam. College Board President David Coleman has said he hopes it helps schools find students “who have demonstrated remarkable resourcefulness to overcome challenges and achieve more with less. It enables colleges to witness the strength of students in a huge swath of America who would otherwise be overlooked.”

Some critics have suggested that using the score is a way to help defend the SAT from charges that the test favors more affluent students, hoping to quell a movement that seeks to drop the SAT as an application requirement.

University of California already gleans some similar information from the state and other sources, such as high schools’ poverty levels. And the UC application’s “personal insight” essays provide students a chance to explain how they overcame hardships. While neither generates an overall score, the information does expand what is known about a candidate.

While some UC campuses may look at the index in the future, they are in no rush to embrace it, officials say. (California’s public colleges are banned from considering race and ethnicity in admissions and the College Board index does not include that.)

Eddie Comeaux, chairman of UC’s influential Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools (BOARS), the faculty panel that sets many UC admissions standards, said the College Board dashboard is flawed in its current form and should be considered “a work in progress.” For example, data about a gentrifying census tract may hide low-income families who lived there for many years and are struggling to stay as rents rise, said Comeaux, an associate professor of higher education at UC Riverside. So a low-income student from such a neighborhood may be wrongly identified as affluent and that “may perpetuate a lot of these disparities,” he said.

UC’s so-called comprehensive review — the way applications are read and judged beyond grades — already looks at family income and whether a student is in a family’s first generation to attend college. Those factors can give a slight admission boost to applicants whose high school grades and standardized test scores meet systemwide UC standards but face strong competition at the most in-demand campuses.

Comeaux said he does not want to surrender UC’s own judgment on how to value student data. He said he does not see the current scorecard as “something that was beneficial, particularly for vulnerable communities. It needs work.”

The UC system’s interim associate vice president and director of undergraduate admissions, Han Mi Yoon-Wu, said she had not studied the College Board index enough to form an opinion about it. No campus is planning to use it as far as she knows, she said.

Beyond meeting basic guidelines, the nine UC undergraduate campuses have leeway in admissions decisions. The goal is to “look at the application as a whole, taking everything together to find students who demonstrate a strong potential to succeed at UC,” said Yoon-Wu.

At the California State University, admissions decisions are more straightforward than UC, relying more heavily on grades and test scores.

The CSU application does not include essays or personal statements, except if a low-income student is applying for extra tutoring and support. The CSU review is more limited primarily because the university system does not have the staff and resources to conduct more nuanced appraisals of the nearly 1 million applications per year, mostly undergraduates, officials said.

However, CSU, unlike UC, may give a student a slight preference if they live in the area that the campus primarily serves.

James Minor, the CSU’s assistant vice chancellor and senior strategist for academic success and inclusive excellence, said admissions officers around the state and country have discussed the index, but have no plans to use it. The index “is not something that at this time we are having conversations for being included” in CSU admissions, he said.

Private colleges in California are much more upbeat.

Matthew Ward, California Lutheran University’s vice president of enrollment management and marketing, said the Thousand Oaks campus had a good experience this year with the index and will continue using it. “I believe it is making a difference,” he said. The additional tool “makes you that more accurate in making wise decisions.”

Seeing the adversity score for each student helped the college reach more deeply into high schools that serve more students who are Latino, low-income or first generation in their families to attend college, he said. Cal Lutheran admits about three-quarters of its 6,000 applicants. The school’s 2018 profile reported about 45 percent of its student body was white, 33 percent Latino, 5 percent Asian and 4 percent black. A third of all students received federal Pell Grants, which are given to those with low income.

Of Cal Lutheran’s top 10 feeder high schools, two usually report more than 50 percent of their students receiving free or reduced cost lunches — a proxy for low-income. That went up to four among ten this year. While the index may not be the sole cause, it probably was a factor, Ward said.

Pomona College, which is more selective and usually admits less than 10 percent of its 10,000 or so applicants, also tested the index and intends to continue using it. Admissions director Sapp said he could not provide statistics on any differences in outcome because many other factors are used in the careful review process. But the scorecard allowed Pomona to establish for the first time a category for rural students that will continue to be used in future years; five percent of the students admitted this year came from rural areas, he said.

Some colleges using the score have reported slight increases in enrollments of students in under-represented categories such as low-income Pell Grant recipients, Latinos or African Americans, said Connie Betterton, the College Board’s vice president for higher education access and strategy.

The adversity score isn’t intended to dictate admissions but can be used as a tool to provide context about “where a student has lived and learned,” she said.

Story originally published by EdSource.