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Op Eds

The SAT Doesn’t Matter: A Case for Economic Affirmative Action

By Tommy Barone, Crimson Opinion Writer
Tommy Barone ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Weld Hall.

Until it admits the Class of 2030, Harvard will no longer require applicants to submit standardized testing.

For some, this decision is cause for celebration, a rare victory for equity in the “Evil Empire” of college admissions. Critics rightly point out that the SAT is unfairly wealth-biased, skewed by private schools and private tutors in favor of the well-off.

A smaller group sees this as a loss for equity. Against the backdrop of an admissions system characterized by backdoors for the uber-wealthy, front doors for those with the means to build an impressive resume, and a red carpet for legacies, the SAT — if imperfect — offers a comfortingly simple way for applicants to perform well and know they will be rewarded. Standardized testing is only a middling heuristic for ability, sure, but members of the pro-testing camp argue that it at least makes it hard for Harvard to accept a billionaire’s kid with a 900 on the SAT.

But the problem is not that there are too few trust-fund kids with decent SAT scores for Harvard to accept — it’s that there are too many.

A lifetime of accumulated privileges ensures that the applicants with the most money also tend to be those with the best scores. There are few billionaire’s kids with 900s on the SAT. Besides, they already have plenty of backdoors, like the Z-list, a hush-hush group of mostly white, very wealthy applicants with underwhelming academics whom Harvard guarantees admission on the condition that they take a gap year.

Even so, let’s assume for a moment that this policy change will allow a few more underperforming billionaires’ kids to slip through. So what? It would be unfair, sure. But a few questionable acceptances on the margins could not even begin to rival the far vaster economic injustice at the heart of Harvard: that 67 percent of its students come from the top 20 percent of the income distribution.

The SAT, while inequitable, has nothing to do with this. In every single element of the college application, wealth puts you ahead.

Take the personal essay. Wealthy applicants attend elite private schools with rigorous humanities curricula that teach you how to write. They have well-educated parents who read their work and older peers who tell them what sort of essay gained them admission. They have a crack team of tutors and college admissions counselors who polish every line and, better yet, strategize with them from the beginning of high school to develop unique interests that they can later write about.

How about extracurriculars? Well, the sort of great schools these kids attend also have great teams, clubs, and publications. Successful parents have successful friends whom their children can follow around for a few summer weeks and call it an internship. And, of course, that same advising crack team can help them doll it all up in a 150-character description on the Common App.

Yes, the SAT is wealth-biased, but so is nearly every other part of the college application. So is life. No metric can see through the privilege of a childhood spent soaked in opportunity to reveal some inherent, universally comparable degree of merit. Those who seek to make the college admissions process fairer in advocating for one metric over another — tests, essays, interviews — misplace their hope in inputs to a system that is structurally unfair. And in arguing over standardized tests, they relocate the responsibility to create a fairer college admissions process away from those doing the admitting.

The blame lies solely with Harvard.

This University speaks often of how diversity enriches our learning environment. And it is right — the myriad backgrounds, cultures, and experiences of its students are the greatest thing about this school. The University just doesn’t seem to believe this extends to class.

As kaleidoscopically diverse as Harvard is, it is far less vibrant for its lack of low- and middle-income students. Without them, this student body remains siloed to the experiences of the better-off, seeing and hearing little of how most of this world lives. The diversity of experience we encounter remains, for the most part, a diversity of the wealthy. The “leaders of the future” Harvard says it trains will one day enter leadership positions with only abstract notions of what economic struggle is. This is how systems of economic unfairness remain and fester.

If you believe in the promise of this University, if you think Harvard is a special place, it should strike you as a moral catastrophe that it nearly only accepts the wealthy. Surely Harvard doesn’t believe that 67 percent of its best applicants come from the same income bracket.

The solution, I think, is simple: if Harvard cares about diversity of perspective, about being a place for ordinary people, and about being plain old fair, it must drastically alter how it accounts for wealth in admissions. Just as it gives applicants a “tip” for race, Harvard should give a comparably large boost for class, one carefully designed to come as close to economic parity as practicably possible.

Until it does so, no standardized test — fair or not — will change the fact that this school was built as and chooses to remain a place for the wealthy.

Tommy Barone ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Weld Hall.

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