The University of Colorado Boulder campus. (Unsplash)

Colorado has an incredible opportunity in this year’s legislative session to increase access to higher education. Legislators can help end statutorily driven discriminatory practices and help the state’s colleges and universities compete with out-of-state schools for Colorado’s students. 

Lawmakers can realize these changes by passing two proposed bills addressing outdated admissions practices. 

One would eliminate the consideration of legacy status in the college admissions process, and the other would end a state requirement to consider national assessment scores such as the SAT and ACT. 

The University of Colorado Boulder strongly supports both of these efforts that help students by removing barriers to pursuing a degree.

Philip DiStefano

Currently, Colorado requires four-year state colleges and universities to consider national assessment scores when making admissions decisions. This mandate, as shown by multiple national studies, unfairly benefits students who have more family financial resources and more access to test preparation. 

For many years, some families have spent thousands of dollars on books, classes and private tutors in hopes of gaining an edge on these national assessment tests. Some students take and retake the exams to achieve higher scores, increasing their chance to be admitted and to be awarded scholarships.

Each dollar spent on a better assessment score represents an unfair advantage against underserved populations in Colorado who don’t have the resources to take those measures. 

Many of these inequities are illuminated in the Colorado Department of Education’s 2019 PSAT and SAT State Achievement Results, which show that students who receive free and reduced-price lunch scored an average 153 points lower on the 2019 SAT than their peers.

Under House Bill 1067, introduced Tuesday, students who still wish to submit their scores to strengthen their application would be able to do so, but removing the required consideration of those scores would reduce inequality in college admissions.

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College admissions offices do not need national standardized tests to adequately assess student applications. Colorado Department of Higher Education data shows that completing the courses in the state’s Higher Education Admissions Recommendations (HEAR) can increase a student’s odds of staying in college and completing a degree by 5%. Their scores on the SAT and ACT, however, have only a marginal impact.

Transcripts that show academic rigor, course sequence through a high school career, GPA, participation in arts and athletics, volunteerism, and work experience are far better indicators of a successful transition to higher education.

In 2020, CU Boulder enrolled its most diverse class ever. Despite the pressures of a pandemic, a recession and more, these stalwart first-year students have performed admirably in their pursuit of a college degree, outperforming the average GPA of first-year students in the 10 previous terms. 

And, because of the temporary reprieve from requiring test scores for students graduating high school in 2021, CU Boulder’s applicant pool is stronger and more diverse than ever before, with 24% more students of color submitting applications.

A bill removing national assessment scores from mandatory consideration is urgently needed for the incoming first-year class of 2022, as testing centers continue to cancel their exam dates because of COVID-19. Test centers that are open have limited seats.

Other students report having to travel farther to take an exam. Only the students with the greatest resources can effectively navigate that shortage, which certainly does not include our rural, first-generation students or underserved populations. 

Additionally, the students who graduate high school in 2021 and defer traditional college entrance in the fall might not have test scores in 2022, as they were not required to have them for applications this year. Therefore, bringing back the requirement of test scores will create inequities in the next several years.

Removing the requirement to consider national assessment scores will also make Colorado institutions of higher education more competitive as we seek to retain in-state students. 

Several dozen out-of-state peer institutions have regional admissions recruiters that live in the Denver metro area, and hundreds more travel to Colorado annually to recruit Colorado students. Many other states have already approved test-optional policies for future years, and they use it as a recruiting tool, drawing many talented Colorado high school students to continue their academic pursuits outside the state. 

Students will not make an extra effort to take standardized tests for CU Boulder or other Colorado schools if we are the outliers in requiring test scores. Colorado should be removing barriers to create better access, not reinstalling them. Our future economy depends on making good decisions about our education system.

Another bill the Colorado legislature will consider this session proposes eliminating legacy status in higher education admissions. CU Boulder fully supports this effort, because we want higher education to be more accessible, especially for first-generation, rural and underserved students in Colorado.

CU Boulder made that a reality on our campus in summer 2020, when we ended consideration of legacy status as a secondary factor for admission. Even before this change, an applicant’s legacy status was considered only after consideration of primary factors, such as GPA. 

When students apply to CU Boulder, they are assessed holistically on the merits of their high school experience alone, and not based on whether a parent, grandparent or sibling attended previously. While this was only a small piece of the admissions process in the past, we strongly believe in equity and fairness, and have found that this practice could undermine that principle.

By passing these bills to eliminate the consideration of legacy status in college admissions and the required consideration of national assessment scores, Colorado higher education has the opportunity to become more inclusive and diverse, better serve our underserved populations, and continue to compete for exceptional students nationally. 

CU Boulder strongly urges Colorado legislators to pass both bills to help us achieve these goals in our mission to serve Colorado’s students.

Philip P. DiStefano is the chancellor of the University of Colorado Boulder and serves as the Quigg and Virginia S. Newton Endowed Chair in Leadership, overseeing CU Boulder’s leadership programs. 

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Philip DiStefano, of Boulder, is chancellor of the University of Colorado Boulder and host of the UN Human Rights sponsored Right Here Right Now Global Climate Summit.