Standardized tests unfairly favor wealthier students in college admissions

Standardized tests for college admissions favor high-income families who can afford expensive prep courses.
Standardized tests for college admissions favor high-income families who can afford expensive prep courses. Getty Images

College admissions officers will once again pass over highly qualified applicants this year simply because they haven’t ranked among the top scorers on the SAT.

Designed to identify college readiness, tests like the SAT or ACT have become another way wealthy families can give their children an advantage over competent peers.

This failing in university admissions has to change.

Students from better-off and better-educated families typically take intensive — and expensive — prep courses that boost their scores on these tests. Higher scores increase their chances of getting into a university and winning scholarships. Students from families who can’t afford prep courses or are unaware of the importance of the tests tend to get lower scores, which reduce their chances at admission and aid.

This reality distorts the fairness of university admissions and financial aid, and it is spurring a growing movement among elite universities to try to do away with traditional standardized tests. Most universities, however, remain under enormous strain to use the tests to evaluate the growing applicant pool. For the foreseeable future, most universities have little choice but to use the SAT or ACT to help them sift through the mountain of applications. The University of California system — one of the biggest targets for applicants in our increasingly diverse state — still requires an SAT or ACT score from all freshman applicants.


Private high schools often promote prep courses as an integral part of their offerings. But California public school districts, already short on resources, understandably do not see prep courses as an essential part of a rigorous academic curriculum.

This puts public high school students from non-college-educated households and minority groups at a disadvantage. They find it harder to gain entry into private universities and the University of California system, which was built to serve the best students in the state regardless of income. As a result, the best upward-mobility mechanism — higher education — is not available to those who need it most.

There is an urgent need for high-quality, low-cost test prep courses for these otherwise college-ready students so that they can compete with their wealthier peers. The College Board, which runs the SAT, recognizes this problem and has teamed up with the Khan Academy to offer free online courses.

But these courses lack the critical element of small-group learning that helps underrepresented students the most. The courses also require internet access and a stable supportive household that disadvantaged students often lack.

Nonprofit organizations like Fair Test and Acceso Academy offer more affordable prep courses, but we need a broader solution.

High-quality, affordable prep courses could level the playing field. Anyone with an interest in the issue should push for change. Entities such as the California Community Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the University of California system, The California Endowment, philanthropists, industry, legislators and school districts should come together to offer low cost, high quality, small-group learning that parallels the $8 billion for-profit prep industry. We all stand to win from pushing to provide access to university education for all highly qualified students, regardless of their parents’ income.

Valero-Cuevas, a professor at the University of Southern California, may be reached at Sklaar, the senior program director at Acceso Academy, may be reached at Peters, an assistant professor at the University of California, Riverside, may be reached at The authors are co-founders and officers of Acceso Academy in Los Angeles. The opinions expressed in this piece are the authors’ own and do not reflect the views of their universities.