If Harvard Cared About Equality, It Would Abolish Legacy Admissions, Not ACT and SAT Requirements

The university is making standardized tests optional for admissions through 2026.


Harvard University has decided to extend its pandemic policy of making SAT and ACT scores optional for applicants until at least 2026, which means standardized test scores won't play much of a role in admissions decisions for years to come, if ever again at all.

Harvard cited the pandemic as the reason for the extension, but the broader push to abolish the ACT and SAT in college admissions is grounded in a misguided idea that the tests are unfair to underprivileged teenagers. The University of California system, for instance, has moved to stop requiring the exams due to concerns that they disfavored black and Hispanic applicants. As EdSource notes, this was part of a settlement with anti-test activists:

The settlement marks the end of a lawsuit that was filed in 2019 by students, community organizers and the Compton Unified School District. The settlement was praised by critics who say standardized tests are biased against low-income students, students with disabilities and Black and Latino students.

The historic settlement "marks an end to a sordid chapter in the history of the University of California. The Regents' stubborn insistence over generations upon usage of the SAT and ACT despite indisputable evidence that these exams only measured family wealth cost hundreds of thousands of talented students of color a fair opportunity to matriculate in their state's system of higher education," Mark Rosenbaum, one of the attorneys representing students in the case, said.

Contra Rosenbaum, the evidence is highly disputed. As Freddie de Boer, author of The Cult of Smart, has argued very persuasively, some combination of grade point average and SAT/ACT scores is highly predictive of success in college. And it's simply not true that prioritizing test scores punishes racial minorities more than alternative admissions standards. On the contrary, the more that schools rely on non-academic criteria such as extracurricular activities and legacy status, the more they reward applicants who are wealthy and well-connected. A gifted but impoverished Latino teen who is the first in his family to finish high school has a better shot in a system that cares about his SAT score than in a system that cares if his parents paid for clarinet lessons and secured him a spot on the water polo team.

"There is no reason to believe that getting rid of the SATs will increase what people actually mean by 'diversity' at elite colleges, and every reason to believe colleges will continue to game these systems," writes de Boer.

If institutions like Harvard really cared about being fair to the unprivileged, they'd take a machete to legacy admissions: a special boost to applicants who are the scions of previous graduates. From 2014 to 2019, the general admittance race for Harvard applicants was six percent—but the admit rate for legacies was 33 percent, according to The Harvard Crimson.

The most prestigious educational institution in the country should take the brightest students, and standardized tests are a better metric for that than the alternatives on offer.