College Board Holds a Harmful Monopoly

by Holland McCabe ’11

For many juniors and seniors across the country, the college application process looms large and occupies much of students’ free time with researching colleges, writing essays and taking standardized tests. Parents, teachers and counselors push students to take AP courses and succeed at standardized tests, and throughout this process many do not pause to appraise the ethics of the organizations that control these programs. The emphasis placed on these test scores in the admissions process is substantial, but the administration of these vital tests is controlled by two private, non-profit organizations: the College Board (which administers the SAT, SAT Subject Tests and AP programs) and ACT, Inc. (which administers the ACT). ACT, Inc. does not have comparable services to the SAT Subject Tests or AP programs, so they do not really pose true competition to the College Board (CB). As a result, many students, and especially those in MCPS, are forced to take at least one of CB’s exams on their road to college.

From ninth grade on, schools and parents push their students to take as many rigorous AP courses and tests as possible. Even one part of MCPS’ “Seven Keys to College Readiness” calls for each student to earn a 3 or better on an AP exam. This push is because these courses are often the most advanced courses available at the high school level. As a result, many of the nation’s top colleges look for a large number of AP courses on student transcripts. Even if a student chooses not to pay into the CB’s monopoly for a chance at a good AP score and the accompanying college credits, they are still affected by CB’s control over these advanced courses. Students must learn tricks for multiple-choice questions and how to write awkwardly formatted essays. Days are consumed with learning skills that will be of little use later in life. Students could have advanced their knowledge in the course’s subject, or improved their writing, without being boxed-in by CB rubrics.

Students are also pushed to succeed on the PSAT, and later on the actual SAT, in order to get into college. While it is possible to take an AP course but not take the exam, the SATs or SAT Subject Tests are unavoidable for many students. These standardized tests are required for admission to most colleges, and once again the CB controls this vital step for college admissions. Yes, students can opt to take the ACT in place of the SAT, but because the ACT offers no alternative to the SAT Subject Tests, the CB remains the choice of most top colleges and universities. Additionally, CB dominates lobbying of governments and school systems to promote their exams over others. This can be seen in MCPS’ school-wide administration of the PSAT as well as data collection that clearly favors the SAT.

With this system-wide position, the CB uses its monopoly fully by charging exorbitant prices for their services. Between SAT-associated fees and AP exam fees, high school students can spend upwards of over $1200 throughout their four years. With all of these fees, the CB is able to make substantial profits. The CB earned nearly $600 million in gross revenue and $55 million in net profits according to its 2007 tax filings, the most recent records available. This is 9.5 percent of total revenue, and such a figure would be respectable for any for-profit company. However the CB is a registered non-profit company, and so these respectable profits are subject to all the tax breaks that accompany non-profit status.

As a non-profit, the CB must have a “charitable” mission, but this is dubious as well. The company states that its mission is “to connect students to access and opportunity, to prepare more and more students to be ready to go to college and succeed.” However this logic is circular, as to get into college (currently), one must take the SAT and a lot of APs. There are few alternatives. The CB can assist by selling you their products – AP tests, SATs, SAT Subject Tests and a host of test-prep materials. If the CB didn’t exist, though, the problem and solution would go away. Colleges would invent their own ways of assessing applicants, school systems would provide their own demanding courses and students would figure out other ways of standing out from other applicants instead of using the CB’s products.