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Harvard Admissions Uses College Board’s ‘Adversity Index’

The Office of Admissions and Financial Aid is located at 86 Brattle Street.
The Office of Admissions and Financial Aid is located at 86 Brattle Street. By Amy Y. Li
By Camille G. Caldera, Crimson Staff Writer

Harvard was one of 50 colleges and universities nationwide that used the College Board’s Environmental Context Dashboard — sometimes referred to as the “adversity index” — in the 2018-2019 regular admissions cycle.

The dashboard includes a “disadvantage number” between 1 and 100, calculated using a range of socioeconomic data from a student’s neighborhood and school, including the area’s crime levels and percentage of single parents, college-degree holders, and food stamp recipients.

A higher disadvantage score indicates more difficult circumstances for a student in a given area or school. Race is not among the dozens of factors used to calculate the score.

The dashboard also shows the number of students who took Advanced Placement classes and tests at the applicant’s high school.

College spokesperson Rachael Dane wrote in an email that Harvard joined the College Board’s Environmental Context Dashboard program earlier this year.

“We are evaluating its relevance to our admissions process,” Dane wrote.

The College is currently facing a lawsuit from anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions alleging that Harvard’s race-conscious admissions policies discriminate against Asian American applicants. Critics of race-based affirmative action have long touted socioeconomic diversity as an alternative to evaluating an applicant’s race.

Joshua S. Wyner, the executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program, said the dashboard offers important information to admissions officers.

“Opportunity varies place to place, and understanding students’ achievement in light of that opportunity is critically important,” he said.

Jerome A. Lucido, a professor at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education who has led national efforts to improve higher education access for low income students, said that while the dashboard is “not entirely perfect,” it will be “helpful” to admissions officers.

“It will at least provide a well-researched dashboard of information that’s at the disposal of the reader that’s not impressionistic,” Lucido said. “The materials in an admissions file are highly impressionistic, so this gives the admissions reader a lot more information on which to understand the credentials they’re reading and to place them in proper context.”

The College Board has not finished gathering data from the 50 schools who tested the dashboard, though data from its first test at 15 colleges showed an overall increase of 2 to 3 percent in the number of disadvantaged students admitted.

“The Environmental Context Dashboard shines a light on students who have demonstrated remarkable resourcefulness to overcome challenges and achieve more with less,” CEO of the College Board David Coleman wrote in a statement last month. “No single test score should ever be examined without paying attention to this critical context.”

But some experts have raised concerns about the calculation and inclusion of the disadvantage score.

“Whether they should have rolled up these many factors into one score is a question for debate. And I don’t know what the weights were given to which factors, so I don’t know how much importance to place on the one single score,” Lucido said. “One other issue with the score is that it could be equally abused as a single SAT score could be. Is a student only what their environmental context dashboard says they are?”

Wyner agreed that any individual score is “at risk of being used simplistically.”

“If colleges stopped with the number and didn’t try to dig more deeply into what was behind that, I think it could lead to some distortions,” he said.

The College Board plans to make the dashboard available to more than 150 colleges this fall before making it broadly available to colleges and universities for free in 2020.

“It might not tell you everything, but it’s an additional factor to look at that I think is going to be helpful once they work out the kinks and the wrinkles of how to use it in a well designed vision,” Lucido said.

—Staff writer Camille G. Caldera can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.

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