By Amanda Bertsch
As college application season gets into full swing, there’s one name that appears just about everywhere students turn. The College Board is a huge conglomerate that holds a near-monopoly on the testing industry. What many don’t realize is that this organization’s fingerprints can be found in every step of the admissions process.
College Board’s most well-known (and extremely profitable) endeavor is the SAT suite of tests. Sophomores and juniors take the PSAT in preparation for their college admissions tests; juniors and seniors take the SAT and send the resulting scores to colleges. Some particularly ambitious students take SAT 2s, also known as SAT Subject Tests, for a chance to show off particular skills to colleges.
Other College Board programs include the CSS financial aid profile used by top colleges and the CLEP series of assessments to test out of college courses. College Board also runs the AP program, where students can take tests at the ends of high school courses to earn college credit.
To fully understand the impact of the College Board on a student’s academic career, let’s examine a typical high-achieving student applying to Cornell Engineering— call him Sam. The following account tracks Sam from his sophomore year of high school to the end of his freshman year of college.
Sam took the PSAT in his sophomore year to prepare for the SAT—that’s $15 right there. He probably took it again the next year to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship Competition, a prestigious scholarship only offered to the top 1% of PSAT scorers and only available for juniors.
He took the SAT, of course—since he wanted good scores for Cornell, he had to take it twice. College Board suggests that taking the SAT twice can increase scores by more than 100 points—an immense increase. Many students take the SAT three or more times, but the College Board only recommends two attempts, so assume Sam did quite well the second time around.
The SAT with writing costs $57 per test date, not including late registration costs ($28) or wait listing fees ($46). Since Sam is an attentive student, he probably ordered either the Question-and-Answer ($18) or Student Answer ($13.50) score report services (or both!) for his first test to get detailed feedback for his studying. For that matter, he probably purchased the official SAT guide ($24.99) to study from.
College Board reports that the average high school student involved in its programs takes three AP tests, but it recommends that high-achieving students have “a core of 5 successful AP experiences”. Cornell admissions are very competitive, so Sam took at least five tests, if they were offered at his school. Many schools, including BASIS, encourage students to take many more tests than this–five is actually fairly low for a competitive Ivy League applicant.
Each AP exam, as of a price hike last year, costs $93. Sam almost certainly bought prep books for his AP classes, but since these books are usually sold by the test prep industry (such as Barron’s, Princeton Review, or Kaplan), they aren’t factored in here.
Ready for more yet? Cornell Engineering, along with most other prestigious programs, requires two SAT subject tests. Depending on if Sam took these tests in one session or two, this cost him either $66 or $92.
Sam had to send all these test scores to Cornell for his application, of course. Assuming he waited to send scores until after seeing his results, as most students do, he paid $12 per report. If he waited too long and had to rush the scores, that’s another $31.
One Sam got in to Cornell, he needed to find a way to pay for college. Cornell, as is the case with most Ivy Leagues, asked him to fill out the CSS financial profile. It cost him $25 to complete and send to Cornell, plus $16 for each other school or program he sent the report to.
Many top schools don’t accept all AP credits, and many top students have skill sets not represented by the credits they take to college with them. The solution? The CLEP tests, also a College Board program, in which test scores can also be traded for credit. Students take AP tests to get into college, then “CLEP in” to upper-division courses when their AP test scores prove largely worthless. Each CLEP test runs $80. Generously, say that Cornell accepted most of Sam’s scores and he only took two CLEPs.
By the end of this process, Sam has given the College Board upwards of $950. And the kicker? This number only includes Cornell’s process. Each other school he applied to cost him between 12 and 59 dollars, depending on if he rushed scores or sent the CSS. It’s not unrealistic to expect a typical high-achieving student to pay the College Board upwards of a thousand dollars before the student finishes their freshman year of college.
Sure, College Board is registered as a not-for-profit. However, at the rate of $1,000 per Ivy League applicant, College Board stands to gross hundreds of millions from the crème de la crème of the college admissions system alone. While administering secure and fair tests is admittedly costly, price hikes in recent years continue to fatten the testing company’s coffers. The price of AP tests from 2013 to 2015 rose $4, or approximately 4.5%. Inflation during this time was just 1.7%.
And the other concerning thing? Sam’s story includes 39 hours of testing. That’s not time spent in the classroom on AP test format or time spent filling out the CSS profile or even time spent prepping for tests—that number solely encompasses time in a testing room, bubbling in answers and writing essays on paper emblazoned with the College Board logo. Add in test prep, and that number climbs to new and concerning heights.
In return for his money and his time, Sam received a set of numbers that colleges and colleagues alike judged him by. He was one of the lucky ones; he achieved his goal to get into Cornell Engineering. Gradually, the College Board’s influence in his life faded. The next year, the admissions process started all over again for a new group of students.
Sure, top schools tout “holistic admissions” and require numerous essays. Yet with upwards of 30,000 unique applicants each year, these schools have no choice but to put a heavy weight on test scores and other quantifiable measures of an applicant’s competitiveness. Standardized testing, to some extent, is a necessary evil. But must we really put all the power in one company’s hands?
The ACT is an underutilized SAT alternative; no others are commonly accepted by schools, and the ACT offers no equivalents to the CLEP, AP, SAT subject test, or CSS programs. Since AP scores make applicants competitive and many (if not most) top science or math programs require SAT subject test scores, it is just about impossible to go to a top school without paying the College Board.
When did a corporation get this much power over college admissions? Sam’s story is repeated over and over in top students across the country and the world (worse, even, in other countries, since College Board prices are often higher overseas). Take another look at Sam and you can find him in the endless score requirements for scholarships, in the AP posters that haunt high schools in the spring, even in many of the Tri-City Prep seniors.
The College Board owns these students’ education.
All test prices and information sourced from collegeboard.org; Cornell Engineering requirements from cornell.edu; inflation statistic from usinflationcalculator.com.