Op-ed: Are college entrance fees a lucrative exploitation of the high school senior?

The alarm blares. The lights flick on. All of the already exhausted, prematurely-aging-due-to-lack-of-sleep seniors shuffle out of bed, throw on their stretched out sweatshirts and ratty sweatpants missing the drawstrings, and head downstairs. At 6 a.m. On a Saturday. Myself included.

As I struggle to rip the knots out of my long, wavy locks, I wonder how toothpaste could have dried into my hair already and why I have awoken at this ungodly hour on my only day to sleep in. Not one for mornings, I take a while to comprehend that I had no other choice.

My counselor made it clear from the second I entered high school: essentially every college requires some kind of test to demonstrate a student’s aptitude for reading, writing, and math. In central Pennsylvania, the SATs dominate. Futile attempts at escape would do me no good, so I might as well just submit myself to doing my best and praying for a score high enough to grant me access to the college of my dreams.

“The tests do not really define you,” optimists croon. I try to believe it. I pump myself up for a chilly morning of extensive lines, unnecessary calculator checks, and monotonous droning from proctors. Repeating my mantra, What else would I want to do with my Saturday morning?, I check one last time to make sure I have all my pencils sharpened. Quickly grabbing a Fuji apple to supplement my high protein egg breakfast, I take a step out the door and breathe in the crisp air, ready to complete my mission.

According to the College Board, the value of an outsider’s opinion on a student’s intelligence and self-worth cashes in at $52.50. All of those long nights spent struggling to work through calculus problems. Every tear shed over a failed attempt at balancing a chemical equation. Each euphoric moment of “I finally understand Shakespeare!” $52.50 to receive a score of, what exactly? By brushing over artistic, musical, scientific, political, historical, and social talent when scoring students, “comprehensive” exams like the SATs paint distorted pictures of individuals for colleges. With households of say, two children on average, each probably taking the SATs twice (not to mention SAT Subject Tests, AP tests, and PSATs), the fees add up to over $200 per family. And yet, not a single teacher, parent, or student seems to know where all of that money goes or what those scores truly demonstrate when it comes to admissions.

Test takers funnel millions of dollars into organizations like the College Board which claim to help students prepare for and get into college. Millions of dollars for judgement, in the end aiding the College Board in expediting monetary growth. Although it claims to be a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing equal opportunities for all test takers (meaning that the great government exempts it from taxes as well), the College Board funnels large sums of money into capitalistic endeavors. Take the development of its new SAT preparation books, for example. Most of these books cost over $20, despite the fact that the organization has the funds to provide them for free. Moreover, the College Board pays lobbyists to push for educational outreaches specifically focused on AP tests, PSATs, and other college preparation materials, all of which it holds the monopoly in, allowing it to rake in even more money. And the cherry on top? The College Board pays its president over $1 million annually, and it pays more than two dozen employees over $230,000 per year.

The college system also demands money for simply considering a student’s application. On average, $37.88, to be exact. And prestigious universities feel they can charge even more; Stanford has the highest application fee in the nation, set at $90. Counselors suggest applying to five to eight different colleges, but funding this many expensive applications becomes difficult for most families to afford. For the middle and lower class citizens, all of these unnecessary fees can quickly add up.

I hop into my beat-up little Volvo and speed off to the test center. Once there, I wait. And wait. And wait some more. I change lines. And wait yet again.

Eventually, a proctor herds my group of about 30 kids down a musty hallway and into what appears to be a geometry room layered with motivational posters. We pick seats and begin the extensive task of bubbling in all of our personal information. Then comes the worst, most frightening part of the test: writing the College Board agreement statement. In cursive. I get myself into test mode by using my extra time to check and recheck my handiwork.

Then, very suddenly, the proctor calls, “Ready?” Dramatic pause. “Begin.” Pages fly as we scramble to put pencil to paper for the essay. Scribbling down my best interpretation of “clear and consistent mastery” of the prompt, I race to finish a coherent paper in only 25 minutes. After the proctor calls time for the essay, we begin the long and arduous task of answer-bubbling as we bounce chaotically back and forth between math, reading, and writing sections. Pretending that I do not feel fatigue, I continue chugging through the test.

At approximately 12:10 pm, I finish the final portion of my exam, but a few minutes still remain in the section. I struggle to drag my mind back into test taking mode for a recheck, exhausting every last bit of my brain power. I must do well on this test, or else what college will want me?

After our dismissal, I plod gratefully back to my welcoming car. Climbing into the driver’s seat, I decide to take at least a few moments to recharge. I try to dwell on the positive fact that I will never have to take the SATs again, but my mind keeps wandering. If I do not do well on these tests, my college applications will suffer, and my acceptance chances will diminish greatly. A headache begins to pound on my temples. I ponder the fact that I traded my hard-earned money to torture myself with a four hour test and weeks of anxiety. $52.50 for a flimsy booklet and a score. Funny, paper usually only costs a few dollars when I buy it. As I start my car, I wonder how the College Board will spend the other $47.50 or so of my money. Hopefully it will actually go toward promoting equal educational opportunities, because it would be a shame if I spent all of that money on something selfish and unimportant.

-- Beth DiBiase, Special to LSNews.org
This op-ed reflects the opinion of the listed author(s), and does not necessarily reflect the views of the LSNews.org editorial board, its advisor, or the Lampeter-Strasburg School District. 

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