CollegeBoard fails the test

Contributed by Tony Ou. Illustration by Nicole Iwamasa.

As students, we’d like to think that the college applications we work so hard on are reviewed word-for-word, but that’s just not the case. According to the U.S. News and World Report, colleges can receive up to ninety thousand applications every year, making it impractical for humans to spend more than a few minutes on each one. Nowadays, most schools automate the process with computers that sort applications into different categories before anyone even looks at them. To do that, they need objective numerical values to input, which is where the CollegeBoard tests come in. They not only help with sorting applications, but they also provide a solution to the ever-growing problem of grade inflation. However, CollegeBoard holds a monopoly on higher education that needs to be addressed.

To objectively pick the best students, colleges need to know that an A at one school means an A at another. This is a much bigger problem than you might think—the GPAs of high school students are rising incredibly quickly over the years. In the state of Hawaii alone, the 2015-16 school year saw 1,117 students graduate with a GPA over 4.0, and the most common grade in high schools across America is now A. Whether you think this means that teachers are getting more lenient or students are becoming smarter, this is a big problem. There’s no nationwide standard for grading students, and as a result, every school inflates grades differently, and some don’t at all. As letter grades start meaning less and less, SAT and Advanced Placement (AP) scores mean more and more. 

If you’ve ever taken an AP test, the process is painfully familiar: you pay the CollegeBoard nearly $100 to sit in a cold room for three hours, and then spend several months anxiously awaiting your scores. After several months of waiting, and hours upon hours spent studying, you’re presented with a single digit. No evaluation, no explanation, just a single digit. And if you want to send your score to colleges (which is the point of taking the test in the first place), you’ll need to pay an additional fee of $15 per college. But who can blame CollegeBoard? It must be incredibly costly to send single-digit numbers between computers.

According to their mission statement, “the CollegeBoard is a mission-driven not-for-profit organization that connects students to college success and opportunity.” The problem is, their actions indicate that they’re more like a business than a generous service for students. It costs $47.50 to take the SAT, and $64.50 to do it with the essay portion. With many colleges requiring the essay, there isn’t much of a choice but to opt for the latter. If you’re a day late for sign-ups, you need to pay another $30. If you need to change the day, location or type of test, there’s another $30 to pay. Want to sign up over the phone? That’ll be an extra $15, and don’t forget—it costs $12 to send your SAT score to each college or university you apply for, or else your score is bunk. And if their website crashes, as it often does when scores are released, no problem! You can hear your scores over the phone for an extra $15.

Even after squeezing every penny they can from students, the CollegeBoard will still turn around and sell their personal information to colleges under the guise of their Student Search Program, which they get consent for by claiming to “connect students with information about educational and financial aid opportunities from nearly 1700 colleges, universities, scholarship programs, and educational organizations.” While it’s true that students can take the ACT instead of SAT, and the International Baccalaureate (IB) programme instead of AP, the fact that there are alternatives does not mean that the original doesn’t have a problem. And the alternatives aren’t perfect either—both the ACT and SAT charge exorbitant prices, and IB is only offered at 33% of all high schools. AP, however, boasts a staggering 75% offering rate amongst public high schools, with almost every private school across America offering AP courses.  

Legally, CollegeBoard identifies as a “non-profit” organization, but they operate suspiciously like a for-profit company. The only thing separating the CollegeBoard from a Fortune 500 company is that they do not have to pay taxes, a privilege granted to non-profit organizations. For an organization to be non-profit, all it has to do is to reinvest all profits made back into itself. Paying employees counts as reinvestment, which leads to frustrating situations like the CollegeBoard CEO earning $900,000 a year, and executives earning upwards of $350,000. There’s nothing wrong with retaining valuable employees, but the CollegeBoard pretends to exist for the benefit of students while charging them ridiculously high prices. This contradicts with their mission statement of connecting students to college and success, as many do not have the resources to be able to take the exams that CollegeBoard has made so integral to the college process. If they were to focus on lowering the cost for their tests instead of compensating their employees so handsomely, or spending hundreds of thousands lobbying every year, then they would actually be connecting students to college and success. This problem is a complicated one, and there is no clear cut, straightforward way to solve it. However, the CollegeBoard monopoly on higher education is an important issue that we can’t ignore any longer. There is currently no viable competition for the PSAT and AP exams, and the SAT’s only competitor is the ACT, effectively making the CollegeBoard a gatekeeper on the path to college. CollegeBoard can do as it pleases, and charge students whatever it wants to let them through. Our reaction to the increasing presence of the CollegeBoard in determining the standards of college admissions raises the question of whether we, as students, will allow a single corporation to control higher education, something instrumental to both our futures and the future of our country.  In the words of CollegeBoard’s own AP Microeconomics curriculum: “It’s important to emphasize that monopolies can cause market failures when they use their market power to engage in behavior that restrains competition.”

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