Key Questions and Recommendations from NACAC and NASFAA's "Toward a More Equitable Future for Postsecondary Access"

Key questions and recommendations, along with a note on public investment in higher education, and comments from select members of the Thought Leadership Panel can be found below. The full set of recommendations can be found in the complete report.

How do we reconcile selectivity with equity?

College admission is a process that relies on an inequitable set of inputs and in many cases is designed to exclude large numbers of highly qualified students. Institutional pursuit of prestige—including efforts to raise one's standing in college rankings—increases pressure for exclusivity, and those institutions that are the most exclusive exert outsized influence on policy, practice, and the national conversation about college admission. To combat these issues:

  • Admission offices should rethink selectivity in the context of their institutions, looking for ways to achieve the purposes of selective admission policies while minimizing racial bias in the process. Institutions without selective admission policies should explore new ways to characterize their processes—as entry or enrollment rather than admission, for instance.
  • Institutions, meanwhile, should ask themselves whether their acceptance rates align with their values, mission, and their stated efforts to achieve racial equity.
  • More broadly, policymakers should question whether public institutions should be selective, and on what basis, to minimize racial bias in selecting students.
  • Public institutions should develop policies that facilitate admission of all in-state students who meet entry criteria.

How can we reduce the complexity of application and financial aid processes?

The process of applying to college compounds inequities by virtue of its complexity. Uneven levels of college-related knowledge—terminology and processes specific to postsecondary education—and access to college guidance are barriers that disproportionately affect students of color and adult students. Application fees, which average $50 nationally and $77 for the most highly selective colleges, present yet another barrier and a financial burden disproportionately affecting Black and Hispanic students (Black and Hispanic populations in the U.S. are overrepresented among those in poverty relative to their representation in the overall population). To advance equity within the application process:

  • Admission offices should work with K-12 schools, students, and others to streamline and automate the transfer of information once a student indicates interest in an institution.
  • Application fees should be reduced or eliminated, and fee waivers should be widely available and easy for students to see and obtain.
  • Colleges and universities should assist in the professional development of college advisors and school counselors.
  • State and federal policymakers and agencies should look to develop an application infrastructure to facilitate automated student records transfer, and they should invest in hiring and training school counselors and college advisors to address disparate needs.

For students who seek federal financial aid, the path to postsecondary education grows considerably more complex, including the required completion of the long and daunting Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the time-consuming hurdle of FAFSA verification for the millions whom the Department of Education selects each year to undergo this additional step. The federal government recently approved a set of changes to simplify the FAFSA and expand eligibility for the Pell Grant award, though many of the changes won't take effect until award year 2024-25. Meanwhile, proposals to eliminate the FAFSA completely and simply rely on the federal tax form to determine aid eligibility demonstrate necessarily bold thinking that should continue as we strive toward equity. The report details several specific recommendations aimed at simplifying and improving the financial aid application process, including:

  • Making sure students and families are aware of the October 1 availability date of the FAFSA (to provide as much time as possible to complete it)
  • Prohibiting unwarranted use of student and parent FAFSA data
  • Codifying into law the October 1 release of the FAFSA

How might we re-center the educational experience in evaluating applicants?

A student's educational body of work is, and should be, the most important factor in the decision to admit a student. Evaluation of that body of work isn't straightforward from an equity standpoint, though, given flaws inherent in grading systems, the degree to which such systems are themselves subject to the influence of systemic racism, and differential access to courses—which constitutes a barrier that disproportionately affects students of color. Federal data shows, for instance, that Black and Latino students have less access to high-level math and science courses.

Meanwhile, evaluation criteria beyond the educational experience, including standard testing, can perpetuate privilege, erect additional financial barriers, and create perceptions among students that they must put their trauma on display or prove their hardship—through essays, interviews, and other extracurricular means. To design for equity requires a radical rethinking of the criteria upon which admission decisions are based:

  • Admission offices should re-center the evaluation process on the array of strengths, skills, and abilities students demonstrate during their K-12 educational experience, and they should seek more contextual methods for evaluating them while considering the racial contexts students experience.
  • Admission offices should minimize or eliminate external assessments and requirements that create barriers that disproportionately affect students of color.
  • Institutions must support the redesign of application and admission processes, which takes time and thoughtfulness.
  • States whose public institutions require standardized test scores should consider removing those requirements to allow institutions to incorporate more equitable metrics into their admission decisions.

A Note about Public Investment in Higher Education

The NACAC-NASFAA report asserts recommendations for practitioners, institutions, and policymakers alike, understanding that the problems of inequity cannot be overcome by pursuing solutions along a single path. In turn, a broader context that also must be addressed is the financial one, namely the public disinvestment in higher education that greatly hampers efforts to advance equity.

As public universities have responded to state cuts in general appropriations by cutting their own budgets and raising tuition, they have had to prioritize students who can pay the most. This often means that high-achieving, low-income in-state students are neglected in favor of out-of-state students who can bring in more revenue. State appropriations differ by institution type, as well, exacerbating disparities between institutions and among the students they serve. Public disinvestment in postsecondary education connects directly to the systemic inequities we seek to address. Restoring the notion of higher education as a public good whose mission advances all of society is our collective responsibility, such that governments provide greater support for public universities and for students seeking postsecondary education.

Voices from the Thought Leadership Panel

Art Coleman, managing partner and co-founder of EducationCounsel, said one of the great strengths of the report is in its calling out—deeply and comprehensively—the complex, often institutionally embedded issues, including the tensions between equity and selectivity. "I see this as a resource for reflection and action," he said. "I would hope it would be the kind of document that policy leaders would periodically review in light of new data as they aim for high-impact, legally sustainable pathways ahead."

Daniel Barkowitz, assistant vice president for financial aid and veterans' affairs at Valencia College in Orlando, Fla., said he plans to do just that, and to share the report widely, not only among his staff, but also with the campus community, both to build awareness of the complexity of issues and to implement the report's recommendations.

Barkowitz said he'd like to see a cross-functional group like the thought leadership panel carry forward the report's recommendations and assess progress. "There's more work that we can do," he said, noting the importance of continuing to foster collaboration among admissions and financial aid professionals, students, counselors, and other experts inside and outside higher education. "We can talk in silos, but until we talk together, systemic change isn't going to happen."

Stephanie McGencey, executive director of the American Youth Policy Forum, challenged NACAC and NASFAA to seek the input of many cross-sector groups in addressing the barriers to equity that were articulated in the report, and she urged individuals and institutions to think big. "If COVID has shown us anything, it's that the way we've always done things doesn't have to be the way we always do things," she said. "We can no longer say with any credibility, ‘We can't do that.'"

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