Report: How could college admissions better promote racial equity?

A new publication from the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) and the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) considers higher education’s admissions and financial-aid systems through the lens of racial equity.

The report, titled “Toward a More Equitable Future for Postsecondary Access,” reflects input from think tanks, college admissions and financial aid professionals, policymakers, traditional-age students, and adult learners—and urges higher education stakeholders to rethink key barriers for students of color, especially Black students.

A legacy of obstacles to equity

Produced with support from the Lumina Foundation, the report points out that “the system of
selective postsecondary admission contains design elements that were originally intended to exclude, rather than include, many people, including nonwhite students.” And even though higher education has worked—and continues to work—to eliminate those elements, “the
legacy that remains in its place continues to bear the effects of exclusion.”

The report highlights numerous ways admissions and financial aid processes could change if promoting racial equity were the primary goal. The authors focus their admissions recommendations on the implications for Black students, citing “the need for a historical reckoning related to the treatment of Black Americans that reached a crescendo in 2020.” Their financial aid recommendations, meanwhile, apply more broadly to “all underserved populations.”

At a high level, the associations urge higher ed stakeholders to question their assumptions about:

  • Institutional selectivity. When colleges make admissions decisions using “variables only some students can attain,” selectivity becomes “a fundamentally inequitable influence” on students’ educational trajectories. Pointing out that Black students tend to have less access to test-prep resources, college advising, and extracurricular opportunities, the report calls for a greater “institutional awareness of who is likely to be excluded” by certain policies.
  • The application process. “The more complex the application process, the less equitable it becomes,” the report states. The authors encourage admissions offices and policymakers to simplify the application process, reduce fees, help ensure students of color have access to highly trained college advisors, and facilitate the digital transfer of records between high schools and colleges.
  • The federal financial aid application process. Applying for financial aid should be less burdensome and shouldn’t require families to “prove they are poor,” the report says. The associations recommend making financial aid offers available as quickly as possible and extending waivers implemented during the pandemic to reduce the need for students to verify the information in their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
  • The criteria used in admissions decisions. Writing that the skills and strengths demonstrated in students’ K-12 performance “should be the nearly exclusive focus” in admissions decisions, the report calls on higher ed to “minimize the steps students need to take outside” of that scope—such as external assessments—since every additional requirement “acts as a toll.”
  • The admissions staff. Increasing diversity within admissions offices is a key way to attract and serve a more diverse student population. The report recommends seeking input from current and prospective Black students on admissions outreach practices and ensuring that admissions staffing, budgets, and processes support equity goals.
  • Implicit biases in financial aid processes. Institutions should explore and acknowledge implicit biases that may affect case-by-case financial aid decisions, the associations write. Stringent academic requirements for scholarships also are worth revisiting, as they can “be inherently inequitable for low-income students.”

Commenting on the report, Justin Draeger, president and CEO of NASFAA, told Inside Higher Ed, that “the most important piece from the financial aid perspective is to internalize the fact that complexity has costs on all students, but most especially on historically disadvantaged students.”

While admissions and aid processes are inherently complex, institutions, policy makers, and other postsecondary stakeholders should view the report as a cue to “to ask somewhat radical questions and make moves towards change,” Angel B. Pérez, NACAC’s chief executive officer, told The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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