The College Board profits off students’ anxieties about college admissions

A drawing of two sacks with dollar signs with a stack of dollar bills balanced on top. On top of the dollar bills, there is a stack of gold coins and the College Board logo.
(Iris Leung | Daily Trojan)

In January of this year, the College Board, which develops exams for college admissions programs, stated it would eliminate the essay-writing proportion of the SAT. Advocates for the decision specified several criticisms with the essay portion, including bias against underrepresented groups. For example, a case study by Duke University economics professor Peter Arcidiacono found that Asian-American students were rated lower on “positive personality traits” such as likability, courage, and kindness.  

 A couple of months later, the University of California collegiate system announced that they unanimously voted to make the SAT and ACT optional for two years before eventually dropping them as requirements. 

These two decisions are a big win for high school students. 

Exams such as the SAT and Advanced Placement are incredibly time-consuming and overwhelming if students have an intense high school workload. Students who take these exams and participate in their courses are also more prone to stress and panic attacks. 

Additionally, these exams are high cost. In 2019, a standard SAT exam costs $52 and can rise to $68 if the student plans on taking the essay portion of the exam. On the other end, the most recent standard ACT costs $60 and $85 with the essay section.

Even though there are fee waivers, college counselors typically advise high school students to take the tests more than once. Consequently, families can spend hundreds of dollars for students to earn competitive scores on these exams. This makes college testing a multimillion-dollar industry. 

The College Board is a non-profit organization that expanded access to higher education by administering the PSAT, SAT and AP exams. However, it now operates as a lucrative and robust business. In 2017, it made over $1 billion in profits from managing exams and increased its earnings to $1.2 billion in 2020. 

By generating this much revenue from their exams, the organization has about $1.1 billion in savings and investments. According to Forbes, top College Board executives have put $160 million in tax havens in the Caribbean, with possibly more in hidden accounts in Mauritius. Hence, the College Board created a large educational empire with the public’s wealth and minimum transparency.

Meanwhile, the College Board’s CEO, David Coleman, has a nearly $2 million salary while other top executives make $300,000 to $500,000 per year.  

Since no other corporation distributes PSAT, SAT and AP exams, the College Board has a monopoly on education, controlling tests and test preparation prices. 

White and Asian students, who are less likely to come from low-income families, perform better than Latinx and Black students on SAT and AP exams. One study found the mean score on the math section of the SAT is 511 out of 800; the average scores for Black and Latinx students were 428 and 457, respectively, while scores for white and Asian students were 534 and 598. When it comes to enrollment in AP classes, Black and Latinx students only account for 9% and 21% of students in these courses. 

The problem with standardized testing is that the rich abuse the system and can afford to spend money to outcompete others. After all, research has shown that SAT scores often correlate with family income, parents’ education level and race

Despite the College Board’s classist framework, there is public trust in this tax-exempt monopoly. The College Board has committed to remaining nonpartisan and nondirective. It has allowed states, school districts and teachers to use a diverse scope of academic outlooks to work with the system. The federal government supports the College Board by endowing millions of dollars to them.

To stop the College Board from profiting off high schoolers’ educational efforts, universities and colleges themselves must change how they admit their students. 

As a substitute for standardized tests, universities should interview prospective students or ask them to submit videos of themselves. A solution for a school like USC is to consider the state’s 11th-grade assessment test, which has less of a varying impact on minority students. 

Schools in the United States could follow the example set by Finnish schools, which include no standardized tests that eliminate rankings and competition between students. Therefore, it is difficult for an organization to control students’ higher-learning readiness. 

States must opt out of SAT and AP exams. For example, California could withdraw from the College Board’s testing program. It could authorize the state’s board of education to produce its own SAT or AP-esque test consistent with the state’s educational goals if they deem a standardized test necessary. 

Once public and private colleges approve such an exam and more higher-learning institutions decline SAT and ACT exams, the market economy would turn against the College Board. As states create contracts with new companies to provide testing for their students, the College Board’s monopoly will begin to collapse.  

Universities must follow alternative routes to testing so that a single corrupt, exploitative entity does not measure high schoolers’ college readiness.