Lying for Diversity

The University of California’s recent decision to replace the SAT and ACT with some future “fairer” test so as to boost black and Hispanic enrollment has generated immense controversy. A key argument was that whites and Asians enjoy an unfair advantage since they, unlike blacks and Hispanics, can afford the extra after-school tutoring available in so-called cram academies.

This justification for this attack on meritocracy is totally false.

Begin with some facts regarding access to these suddenly politically relevant cram academies. Not surprisingly, given the importance of standardized tests such as the SAT, and the minimal investment necessary to open a storefront facility and hiring some college graduates as instructors, they are common in California. Just google “SAT prep California” and a plethora of Mom and Pop businesses pop up with names like Scorebuilder Test Prep or Mr. Testprep. All supply positive ratings on their websites plus more detailed testimonials from successful college applicants, boast of their expertise and may offer money-back guarantees unless scores increase.

This is free market, consumer-sensitive capitalism on steroids, and these academies typically offer customized one-on-one tutoring, very small classes, convenient scheduling, and preparation for a variety of tests and will target any potential clientele provided there is adequate demand.   

Is tuition beyond the reach of blacks and Hispanics?  Begin by acknowledging that as with all consumer products, a range exists from being satisfied with bare basics, for example, unsupervised on-line instruction, to deluxe models of intensive one-on-one tutoring. Much also depends on where one begins academically and the student’s first choice of college. Someone with deficient skills who nevertheless aspires to UCLA might need to spend a fortune, an option perhaps only available for the rich kids from Beverly Hills. But, on the other side are those who only aspired to the first rung of the California system and need only a modest boost in his SAT to make the cut and hopes eventually to transfer (where no SAT is required) to UCLA after the second year of college.  

People also differ in evaluating “too expensive.” Some education-obsessed families will forego necessities or take a second job to help junior attend Berkeley; other eschew any instruction unless it is free. It is thus impossible (and inappropriate) to offer sweeping generalities about anybody being “too poor” to afford at least some SAT tutoring. Keep in mind that thousands of students skip school even though it is free, and they also receive a free breakfast and free lunch.

How much can an average youngster expect to pay? One review estimates substantial ranges, for example, an on-line program could run anywhere from $100 to $1400 per 40 hour course; if there is in-person instruction, the 40 hour course could range from $800 to $1800; while one-on-one tutoring can run from $40 to $200 per hour.

Now for an awkward reality for those complaining about the poor kid unable to compete with the privileged for admission to top schools. Public libraries and schools themselves often have self-study books available for loan (or obtainable if requested). One can buy self-study guides on Amazon for $10 to $20 per book  Better yet, the College Board offers free study guides at its website (and this includes practice tests) plus free-online materials to start your own study group and daily practice questions sent to your phone app. In short, there’s no such things as being too poor to avail oneself of expert help. Agreed, downloading material does require a computer and an Internet connection but these are usually freely available at public libraries and even if purchased, they are a cheap price to be paid for being admitted to a low-cost, world-class university.

Moreover, if levelling the academic playing field by opening up access to cram academics were the goal, this could be accomplished not by abolishing the SAT or ACT but by philanthropists such as Bill and Melinda Gates offering scholarships to those unable (or unwilling) to pay for the extra tutoring. Overnight, philanthropists could request the cram academies to just send them the bill and the playing field is now level. And since the benefactors are private charities, they are unencumbered by anti-discrimination laws. Letters would just say, “free tuition for all blacks and Hispanics.” No need for the university to wage war on merit under the guise of helping the less affluent.   

Does this extra tutoring really help? The overall answer is “no” or “only a little bit.” First, it is extremely unlikely that youngsters who have neglected their studies in school will suddenly shine in a cram academy, let alone a distance learning alternative demanding self-discipline. Sloth will not vanish when arriving at Mr. Testprep, even if everything is free.

Second, while complicated, the overall evidence from scholarly studies is pessimistic and certainly not a game changer in leveling the admission playing field. Don’t believe the website hype about transformative miracles. The most detailed analysis of this question can be found in the 2015 scholarly (and highly statistical) article called “Who Benefits from SAT Prep? An Examination of High School Context and Race/Ethnicity.” To quote, “Students who have more highly educated parents, have more financial resources, attend schools with higher participation in AP courses, and whose parents have high educational aspirations for them and are not only more likely to participate in the more elite forms of test prep, they achieve higher scores on the SAT (a combined 42 points). In other words, those very few students who begin with multiple educational advantages, do benefit but 42 points will not compensate for the huge differences found in today race-related gap (the average overall white/black gap in the entire California system is 170 points). And since only a small minority of students enjoy these helpful multiple pre-existing conditions, a cram course is not the universal ticket to a top school though it may be a marginal benefit to a tiny handful on the accept/reject bubble. Put another way, abolishing the SAT will not suddenly motivate parents to push junior academically.

The eminent Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter once said, “The first thing a man will do for his ideal is lie” and the debate over the University of California dropping the SAT and ACT illustrates this perfectly. This is a remarkably blatant lie and even more remarkably, nobody attempts to verify the claim. It is as if it were settled science that blacks and Hispanics are too destitute to acquire free help from the College Board or are they lining up for tutoring at Kaplan but going home disappointed once they find out that the on-line course, a possible ticket to a world class college education, costs $240.  Clearly, dropping college admission testing has nearly zero to do with the cost of cram academies but nobody dare bell the cat. Yet one more victory for the egalitarian left’s ceaseless war on meritocracy.

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