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What Does “Equity in Opportunity” Really Mean? College Admissions Edition

Imagine this: Four people want to go for a bike ride. They have different ages, body types, and abilities. What would happen if you gave them all the exact same bike?

For some, it may be a perfect fit. For others, it may be too big or too small and uncomfortable to use. Some may not even have the ability to ride it. Equal opportunity asks us to give the same to everyone, regardless of context.

Image: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Here at Access Opportunity, our vision is equity in opportunity for all students. The use of the term “equity” when describing our work is intentional. We’ve seen how differences in resources and circumstances can result in different outcomes, and we believe that equity – not just equality – is necessary to make change.

Equity in opportunity takes into account the individual needs of students and what it will take to get them from where they are to where they want to be. As we prepare students for college and career success, we must take into account the larger systems at play that impact our students’ ability to “ride.” This can only be accomplished with a deeper understanding of the diverse barriers that may impact their access to opportunity.

Many view the college admissions process from a place of equal opportunity. With thousands of different institutions all across the country and the world, online application platforms, and admissions staff who are excited to lend a hand, everyone has equal ability to go to college… right?

This is not the case. Students from low-income households can face many hurdles on the road to college – from less access to information about college and financial aid, to limited support from parents and school counselors, to fewer resources and opportunities in schools to prepare them for college-level courses. Low-income students statistically score lower than their high-income peers on standardized tests like the SAT and the ACT, not because of innate differences in intelligence or ability but because of differences in access to test preparation and academic support. Characteristics such as demonstrated interest and legacy admissions give added benefits in the college admissions process to students whose parents attended college – one analyst found that children of alumni had a 45% greater chance of admission to 30 top colleges.

Knowing these limitations, Access Opportunity supplements the work of our local high schools by providing intensive, individualized counseling for our high school juniors and seniors. In addition to college counseling, students receive leadership development and standardized test preparation. The college application and decision process is time-consuming, intensive, and fully dependent on access to knowledge, information, and resources. Together, these program components provide the support students need to be successful in their pursuit of higher education, while also building a community of peer support and solidarity.

But this alone is not enough to achieve our vision of equity in opportunity for all students. The move towards test-optional admissions that was triggered by COVID-19 was one important step, but there is more that can be done to level the playing field. As we begin to consider what our “new normal” will be, we must work together with all stakeholders who are equally committed to equity. We look forward to being a part of this important work in the years to come.

Natalee Deaette

Program Director