Educational Context Matters: The Development, Foundations, and Use of Consistent, Research-Based Environmental Information in College Admissions

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In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education published A Nation at Risk, a landmark study that laid out the shortcomings of a K-12 educational system that was failing American youth. In the nearly 40 years since, income segregation across U.S. school districts has accelerated (Owens, Reardon & Jencks, 2016), and metrics and outcomes like test scores (e.g., NAEP, SAT, ACT), college enrollment, degree completion, and employment continue to reflect educational inequities that fall along sociodemographic lines (NCES, 2022). Research reveals that the educational fate of students living in challenging environments is not sealed at birth, as those fortunate enough to move to more resourced neighborhoods or attend colleges that enhance social mobility have improved educational and life outcomes (Chetty, Hendren, and Katz, 2016; Chetty et al., 2017). This paper presents new data that serve as the basis for Landscape, a resource for higher education that quantifies the accumulated educational challenges faced by American youth at the point of high school graduation. We assemble rich data resources that describe the environments where students live and learn. We synthesize the literature on environmental context and educational opportunity to support the creation of normative contextual metrics that supplement college application information for college admissions professionals. We illustrate how these evidence-based measures of environmental context relate to student attributes and postsecondary outcomes and conclude with evidence that information on environmental context demonstrably changes admissions outcomes.