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Michael Bastedo’s research informs new college admissions tool aimed at increasing equity and access

May 24, 2019

Each year, admissions officers review college applications and evaluate factors like test scores, grades, and extracurricular participation, in order to determine who can enter their institutions. These typical factors do not add up to an entire snapshot of a student, though, since they do not account for an applicant’s context and background. For these reasons, a new evaluation tool has been developed and tested by several universities. Its goal is to uncover students who have risen above their circumstances.


As reported in the Wall Street Journal, 50 colleges in the last year have been using this tool, called the Environmental Context Dashboard. The work of Dr. Michael Bastedo, of the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education, informed the development of the dashboard, which was created by The College Board—the nonprofit organization that oversees the SAT.

Broadly, the dashboard displays general information about an applicant’s SAT score, high school size, percentage of students on free/reduced lunch, and percentage of students taking AP coursework in addition to AP scores. It also shows reviewers where an applicant stands relative to the other applicants when it comes to overall disadvantage. The Overall Disadvantage Level, more publically called the “adversity score” is shown on a scale of one to 100. Any number above 50 indicates hardship, and a number below 50 indicates privilege. This score is an aggregate of numerous data points that are reflective of the challenges an applicant has overcome. These data points include facts about the level of disadvantage in an applicant’s neighborhood and school, such as local poverty rates, crime rates, median income for the area, employment rates, and the educational attainment of its residents. Jeremiah Quinlan, the dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale, said that one benefit of the adversity score is that it helps to make comparisons more consistent among applicants.

In spite of the breadth of information it collates, the adversity score does not take race or ethnicity into account, thus making it a legal tool in the states that disallow the use of race as a determining factor in college admissions. Still, as Bastedo noted in an interview with The New York Times, “It’s hard to imagine that using the dashboard would not lead to an increase in racial diversity.”

Bastedo’s recent study showed that admissions officers were up to 28 percent more likely to admit low-income applicants upon understanding their high school context. As stated in a Chronicle of Higher Education article about the dashboard, context is valuable to an admissions officer, but also to a whole institution. The quantification of one’s context, as opposed to relying on individual assessments of students by officers who could weigh one’s context differently, means that the adversity score aids in more consistent decision-making. Knowing more about the opportunities a student is given prior to entering college will help admissions officers better understand their achievements, explained Bastedo.

A Michigan Daily article affirmed that the University of Michigan was one of the 50 initial universities to use this dashboard, and that it will continue to use the dashboard and its adversity score in decision-making processes.

“I think, hopefully, it is evening the playing field a little bit, but I don’t think anyone should feel penalized by it,” Bastedo said. “If you happen to be a wealthier student, and you’re doing good work, and you’ve accomplished a lot, you’re going to get into a good college, and you have just as much of a chance at being successful as anyone else.”

The Environmental Context Dashboard will expand to 150 institutions in fall 2019.

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