‘Adversity’ the New Buzzword in College Admissions

Could a focus on adversity promote diversity? New federal guidelines offer colleges a compass for navigating uncharted waters.
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D., is a senior writer and higher education analyst with BestColleges. He has 30 years of experience in higher education as a university administrator and faculty member and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. A former...
Published on October 9, 2023
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  • A new Education Department report suggests colleges consider the adversity applicants have faced.
  • Admissions decisions must remain race-neutral but should be made in the context of students' financial and educational resources.
  • Colleges can access several tools providing data on schools, neighborhoods, and communities.
  • Application essays now prompt students to address how their background has shaped their lived experience.

In its recently released report, the Department of Education outlines various ways colleges can foster racial diversity now that the U.S. Supreme Court has banned race-conscious admissions.

Among its recommendations, the report suggests colleges pay greater attention to the adversity applicants have faced and overcome. The report mentions adversity 25 times. It also uses similar terms such as resiliency (15 times) and hardship (seven times).

Has “adversity” become the new proxy for race? Or will colleges simply become more attuned to adversity as one component considered within holistic admissions decisions?

What Is Meant by 'Adversity'?

Education Secretary Miguel A. Cardona put the notion of adversity front and center in his opening statement within the department's report, titled “Strategies for Increasing Diversity and Opportunity in Higher Education."

We strongly encourage institutions to consider students' experiences overcoming adversity, he wrote, as well as their sources of personal inspiration, during the admissions process.

Cardona's definition of adversity refers to overcoming challenges and demonstrating resiliency, particularly in the context of financial and educational constraints.

Students from underresourced communities who achieve academically and personally deserve special consideration, the report suggests, not only because of the obstacles they've successfully overcome but also because of the contributions they can make to the university.

As such, colleges should pay close attention to race-neutral background information about students, including family wealth, the condition of neighborhoods and schools, and personal experience of hardship or discrimination, including but not limited to racial discrimination.

And that, of course, is where things get complicated, especially from a legal standpoint. How can a consideration of adversity in the form of racial discrimination remain race-neutral?

Take application essays, for example. In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, At the same time, nothing prohibits universities from considering an applicant's discussion of how race affected the applicant's life, so long as that discussion is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability that the particular applicant can contribute to the university.

Yet the propriety of using essays to address race remains fraught with ambiguity given his subsequent clarification:

[D]espite the dissent's assertion to the contrary, universities may not simply establish through application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful today.

Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that the Education Department's recommendations seem to waver on the extent to which race can be considered in holistic decisions. Its new report presents a “framework” universities can use to advance diversity on their campus using a variety of factors without consideration of individual students' race.

But its previous guidelines, issued in August as a Q&A in concert with the Justice Department, note that universities may continue to embrace appropriate considerations through holistic application-review processes and (for example) provide opportunities to assess how applicants' individual backgrounds and attributes — including those related to their race, experiences of racial discrimination, or the racial composition of their neighborhoods and schools — position them to contribute to campus in unique ways.

The subtle distinction, one might assume, lies in the role race plays in holistic admissions decisions. The extent to which race and ethnicity inform an applicant's lived experience should not be ignored, but race in and of itself cannot tip the scales in an applicant's favor.

Tools for Assessing Adversity

Colleges wishing to explore a student's background to assess adversity, broadly construed, have tools at their disposal.

Landscape, introduced by the College Board in 2019, is a free resource colleges can use to obtain information about applicants' high schools and neighborhoods. It includes measures on median household income, home ownership, poverty, educational attainment, and employment, among other data points.

The College Board makes it clear that Landscape doesn't provide an adversity score per se.

Landscape does not measure adversity and never will, its website claims. It simply helps admissions officers better understand the high schools and neighborhoods applicants come from. It does not help them understand an applicant's individual circumstances, their personal stories, hardships, or home life.

If the College Board seems rather touchy about the subject, it's for good reason. While Landscape provides background information painting a picture of what might constitute a challenging environment, it doesn't aggregate data or draw conclusions for colleges. It tried doing that, and it didn't go so well.

Before launching Landscape, it offered an “Environmental Context Dashboard” that assigned SAT-takers an adversity score measuring economic hardship while not considering race. Reducing complex contextual information to one number was a noble exercise, but it didn't seem to gain traction within the higher education community.

The idea of a single score was confusing because it seemed that all of a sudden the College Board was trying to score adversity, College Board CEO David Coleman told NPR in 2019. That's not the College Board's mission. The College Board scores achievement, not adversity.

Hence Landscape, the new iteration minus the score. Yet it turns out Landscape might suffer from its own limitations.

A new study found that the tool had a modest impact on disadvantaged students. While students from challenging backgrounds gained a 5-point increase in the probability of admission following a college's use of Landscape, it didn't translate into higher enrollments among those students. Financial barriers remained in the way.

Still, it's a worthy cause likely to pay dividends, concludes a new study. Researchers found that assessing students' grades and test scores within the context of school, family, and community resources strongly correlates with success in college.

Our findings suggest that contextualizing high school grades and test scores may allow institutions to identify students from diverse backgrounds with strong academic achievement who will graduate, said study co-author Michael Bastedo in a release.

Not only is it a legally permissible way for institutions to promote equity, it also helps admissions officers identify students who are very likely to succeed.

To that end, additional tools can help colleges contextualize applicants. Opportunity Atlas, adopted by Yale University as part of its revamped admissions policies following the SCOTUS decision, allows users to trace the roots of today's affluence and poverty back to the neighborhoods where people grew up.

Another is the “Equity in Education Dashboard” introduced by the National Center for Education Statistics. It doesn't drill down to the neighborhood level but does offer insights into national educational trends, including racial disparities.

Evaluating Adversity Within Holistic Admissions

The notion of adversity, or some such related concept, has long been a mainstay within holistic admissions. For years, colleges have singled out students demonstrating character, perseverance, and grit.

But suddenly it's more important thanks to the court's ruling. Absent the explicit consideration of race as one determining factor, adversity has become a catch-all term encompassing socioeconomic disadvantage, discrimination, family dysfunctionality, and other hardships that may or may not be associated with race.

That's why application essays have taken center stage, allowing students to directly address such experiences and personal qualities. The Common App now includes a prompt enabling students to consider the lessons we take from obstacles we encounter.

Harvard asks, How will the life experiences that shape who you are today enable you to contribute to Harvard?

Referencing the Supreme Court ruling, Sarah Lawrence College compels students to draw upon examples from your life, a quality of your character, and/or a unique ability you possess and describe how you believe your goals for a college education might be impacted, influenced, or affected by the Court's decision.

And Columbia University wants students to ponder an aspect of your own perspective, viewpoint or lived experience that is important to you, and describe how it has shaped the way you would learn from and contribute to Columbia's diverse and collaborative community.

Accomplishing this in 200-250 words — some prompts limit responses to 100 words — requires a level of brevity that might cause students to rely on stereotypes and hackneyed anecdotes meant to satisfy admissions officers' expectations of how race informs one's upbringing and educational journey. The results might read like something spit out by ChatGPT.

Nonetheless, it's how universities — especially selective ones employing holistic tactics — and students must navigate these post-affirmative action waters.

The Education Department's missive provides a handy compass though features enough gray area to cause inevitable confusion. Admissions officers are thus wading in carefully, fearful of missteps leading to possible lawsuits yet vigilant in their quest to preserve meaningful levels of student diversity.

Will this heightened focus on adversity become the panacea? When the dust settles on this admissions cycle and universities release updated diversity stats, we'll certainly have a clearer picture.