Hack the Gates, a yearlong effort to reimagine college admissions co-sponsored by a Colorado State University center, culminates Aug. 4 with a final webinar and the release of eight briefs written by scholars across the country.
Hack the Gates kicked off in September 2019 and featured a two-day meeting in November 2019 in Washington, D.C., that involved admissions leaders, policymakers and research experts focused on equity in college admissions. The briefs that emerged from those talks and subsequent webinars were sent back to admissions practitioners for feedback on the practicality of the recommendations.
The authors cover a variety of suggestions for how to enhance racial and economic equity in college admissions. Among other topics, they examine the use of test scores during a pandemic, college-in-prison programs, reimagining college fairs, and Idaho’s direct admissions program, which admits all academically qualified high school graduates to a public college in that state without asking students to submit an application.
CSU Associate Professor OiYan Poon, far left, speaks on a panel at the Hack the Gates convening event in November 2019. Photo by Jamaal McKenzie
The principal investigator and one of the authors is OiYan Poon, an associate professor of education with CSU’s Race and Intersectional Studies in Educational Equity (RISE) Center. The RISE Center partnered with Admissions Community Cultivating Equity and Peace Today (ACCEPT) on the Hack the Gates initiative.
In her brief — “Dismantling the Hunger Games: Exploring a Match System in Selective Admissions” — Poon considers the creation of a public matchmaking program to replace the current labyrinth of selective college admissions.
“It draws from research to question the ways selective college admissions works as an annual cultural spectacle to reinforce race and class inequalities,” Poon said. “It presents suggestions for an alternative system of college matchmaking that could be publicly managed with oversight by the U.S. Department of Education to more directly center students’ educational interests.”
One intent of the reform, Poon explained, would be to reduce the role that a student’s ability to pay plays in college admissions.
“These decisions often come down to the wealth of the institution,” she said, adding that a university’s available financial aid funding can play a key role in who gets accepted. “The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.”
Poon discusses athletics revenue at the Hack the Gates event in Washington, D.C., last fall. Photo by Jamaal McKenzie
Research meets policy, practice
Partners in the Hack the Gates initiative stressed the importance of connecting research to those who make policy decisions on college admissions — and those working in the field of admissions.
“ACCEPT is excited to link admissions practitioners, researchers and policymakers to ‘test drive’ these provocative ideas in the near future,” said Marie Bigham, founder and executive director of ACCEPT.
Angel Peréz, chief executive officer of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, agreed that Hack the Gates is a good example of how systemic change can happen at the intersection of research and policy.
“These policy papers highlight the challenges faced by our most marginalized students as they grapple with the complex and bureaucratic processes we have created on the road to higher education,” Peréz said. “COVID-19 has exacerbated inequity, but these papers propose an opportunity for reinvention. I hope practitioners and legislators alike reflect on this important work, and are inspired to put students at the center of their work.”
“The college admissions process is one of the systems that calls for dramatic reimagination to eliminate the inequities that have prevented talented students from reaching their full potential for too long,” added Jenny Rickard, president and CEO of Common App, which was a supporting partner in Hack the Gates. “Thanks to CSU and ACCEPT for following up last Fall’s Hack the Gates convening with these thought-provoking papers that support the creation of a new, more equitable college admission process now.”
Poon, center, with some of her colleagues who attended the November 2019 kickoff event. Photo by Jamaal McKenzie
Hack the Gates briefs
In addition to Poon, the other authors and their topics are:
In a Pandemic, Test-Optional Admissions is Necessary but Insufficient
By Dominique Baker (Southern Methodist University) and Akil Bello (FairTest)
The pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated the disparities between well-funded (and largely white) schools and underfunded (and largely Black and Latinx) schools when it comes to resources, access to testing and support. While removing the requirement to submit test scores has gained popularity in recent years, there are critical concerns with the implementation of test-optional policies in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The authors provide recommendations on three issues: states requiring students take a college entrance exam to graduate, the speed with which institutions have decided to go test-optional, and recent term grades.
The Equity Rankings: An Alternative Assessment of U.S. Higher Education
By Federick Ngo (University of Nevada, Las Vegas)
If rankings can get higher education institutions to change their behavior, then why not use “the master’s tools” towards more equitable and just ends? Could a college ranking instead be used to advance the causes of equity and social justice? This brief outlines alternatives to college rankings that are focused less on prestige and more on equity. The idea is simple: College rankings do what they are designed to do. A ranking based on prestige will lead institutions to chase prestige. A ranking based on equitable outcomes may lead institutions to change course and instead pursue democratic and social justice ideals.
Reimagining Admissions and Enrollment Practices: College in Prison Programs
By Erin Corbett (Second Chance Educational Alliance, Inc.)
Of the more than 4,600 postsecondary institutions in the U.S., over 200 sponsor some form of college-in-prison program. While some of these programs offer open enrollment access, others demand that students demonstrate their academic worth through problematic and traditional methods that include standardized tests, written essays and proof of “extracurricular” activities. This brief challenges the use of selectivity-based admissions practices in college-in-prison programs, and offers a three-principled framework through which to transform these programs for equity.
Beyond the Land Acknowledgement: “LAND BACK” or Free Tuition for Native Students
By Megan Red Shirt-Shaw (University of Minnesota)
This policy brief explores the concept of “land back” in higher education. The author begins by problematizing land acknowledgements without land-based reparations. She then discusses and presents two options for institutions: Return institutional land to Native nations or, if institutional land cannot be returned to Native nations, provide free higher education to Native students on their traditional homelands as land-based reparations.
Reducing Red Tape through Simplification: How Idaho Radically Reimagined College Admissions
By Jennifer Delaney (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) and Taylor Odle (University of Pennsylvania)
In 2015, Idaho developed the nation’s first state-level direct admissions program, admitting all high school graduates to the state’s public colleges. By using existing data and proactively signaling college opportunities to students and families, Idaho reversed declining postsecondary enrollments and out-of-state migration. This brief presents an analysis of direct admissions in Idaho, which holds potential for reducing equity gaps, and offers recommendations for other states interested in implementing similar plans.
Communication Equity Audits: Eliminating Racialized Responsiveness among College Admissions Counselors
By Ted Thornhill (Florida Gulf Coast University)
Thornhill argues that implicit bias trainings are largely ineffective to advance diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education. For admissions offices to operate in an antiracist manner, he says, they must adopt alternative approaches. Past research has shown that admissions professionals’ email behaviors to be racially inequitable. This brief describes one approach to assess, hold accountable, and change the behaviors of admissions professionals, in their email communications with prospective students — communication equity audits.
Reimagining College Fairs for Equity: The Role of High Schools and Postsecondary Education
By Adrian Huerta (University of Southern California)
This paper provides suggestions to advance equitable outcomes in developing knowledge and learning opportunities about college. It also provides an equity guide checklist for high school and college personnel to evaluate and improve efforts to host college fairs and other programs that offer students and families chances to connect with college information and campuses. The checklist is intended for college recruiters and K-12 school administrators to create strong college fair opportunities for high school students in socially distanced or in-person programming.