5 keys to creating true equity in college admissions and financial aid

Individual admission offices cannot solve the problem alone, say the authors of a wide-ranging new report.

Understanding the link between selectivity and racial inequity in college admissions is one of several key strategies in dismantling long-standing and system barriers to college access.

Some steps have been taken, such as eliminating legacy admissions and making use standardized test scores optional. But these measures amount to treating the symptoms rather than zeroing in on the root causes through a student-centered, big picture examination of  admissions and financial aid, says the new “Toward a More Equitable Future for Postsecondary Access” report by the National Association for College Admission Counseling and the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

“The college admission profession is rooted in a history and in systems that have disadvantaged the most marginalized students in our society,” said Angel B. PÁ©rez, NACAC’s chief executive officer. “We must reckon with that history and begin to tackle the bigger issues that affect who has access.”

The report recommends a series of actions for admission and financial aid practitioners, educational institutions, and state and federal agencies and policymakers, including:

  • Reducing the complexity of processes for applying to schools and applying for federal financial aid
  • Counteracting the negative effects of institutional selectivity on racial equity
  • Re-centering the student K-12 educational experience in admission decision-making criteria
  • Diversifying admission offices
  • Combating implicit biases in financial aid offices

Individual admission offices cannot solve the problem on their own. “College admission officers do not function in a silo and are often limited in the impact they can have in creating greater access for the most marginalized students,” PÁ©rez says. “Until we address how higher education is funded in America, the complexity of the financial aid process, the tools we use to evaluate students, and the investments we make in the admissions professionals doing the work, we will make incremental progress at best.”

The project was launched in the spring of 2021 in the wake of COVID’s disruptions and the racial reckoning in that began in the summer of 2020. Researchers convened a thought leadership panel of experts and higher education professionals and also interviewed traditional college-age students and adult learners.

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The report also urges higher ed leaders to further reflect on how inequities are merely incidental but rather inherent in very design of admission and financial aid systems. It also urges further study of impediments to access for by traditional-aged and adult students of color, particularly Black students.

“We have the tools at our disposal to push for a more equitable playing field for all college students, but it must start with the willingness of institutional leaders and policymakers to lean into the sometimes-uncomfortable situation of exploring and ensuring that policies align with our values,” NASFAA President Justin Draeger said.

Here’s a closer look at the key questions raised in the report:

1. How do we reconcile selectivity with equity? 

Leaders of selective institutions should consider whether their acceptance rates align with their values, mission and efforts to achieve racial equity. Institutions without selective policies could recharacterize their processes as “entry” or “enrollment” rather than admission.

“More broadly, policymakers should question whether public institutions should be selective, and on what basis, to minimize racial bias in selecting students,” the report says. “Public institutions should develop policies that facilitate admission of all in-state students who meet entry criteria.”

2. How can we reduce the complexity of the application process?

The report encourages admission officers to work closely with K-12 schools to streamline and automate the transfer of information when a student indicates interest in a college or university. Administrators should also consider reducing or eliminating application fees and making waivers more widely available and accessible. Colleges and universities should also help expand the professional development of college advisors and school counselors.

3. How might we re-center the educational experience in evaluating applicants?

An expanded admissions process would examine a much wider array of the strengths, skills, and abilities students have demonstrated in K-12. Admissions officers should also use more contextual methods that account for the racial contexts students experience. Institutions should also work to drop external assessments and requirements that disproportionately exclude students of color.

The full report can be found here.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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