A couple of weeks ago, as soon as it became clear that there was no way the spring SAT and ACT testing schedule could proceed as normal, I started wondering how the Coronavirus pandemic would affect the trend toward test-optional admissions policies.
No sooner had the thought crossed my mind than an Instagram announcement popped up stating that Case Western had decided to go test-optional for students applying in the fall of 2021. At Case, the policy currently applies to those applicants only; policies for future classes will be determined next winter. Tufts has also announced a similar policy involving a three-year trial period.
From what I understand, it seems likely that the pandemic will consist of multiple, overlapping waves of outbreaks in different regions over a fairly extended period, rather than occurring in one single massive wave, and so it would not be at all surprising if these policies were ultimately extended.
Obviously, that makes sense from a logistical perspective right now—given the cancellation of spring exams, the uncertainty surrounding make-up dates, and the general up-in-the-air quality of just about everything for at least the next few months, it is not unreasonable for schools to adopt a flexible stance regarding standardized testing.
I suspect, however, that some of these changes will become permanent.
Having admitted one class, or even multiple classes, without required test scores, many colleges are likely to have the stunning realization that the SAT and the ACT just aren’t all that necessary for their purposes after all.
Ultimately, though, this is will be a financial decision.
It’s hardly a secret that over the last couple of decades, college tuition has skyrocketed to almost unfathomable levels, to the point where one really did have to wonder where it would end. $150K/year? $200K? A quarter-of-a-million? Surely prices couldn’t keep being inflated this way indefinitely, even if elite schools were offering huge amounts of financial aid to all but the wealthiest applicants. At what point exactly was the bubble going to burst?
Well, it’s burst now. Harder and faster than almost anyone could have expected.
With international-student tuition no longer a sure thing and countless parents of about-to-be-college-applicants suddenly out of work, a good proportion of the higher education world is going to be forced into survival mode.
On top of that, applicants from families who in the past would have required little to no financial aid are suddenly going to need it in spades, and there just won’t be enough money to go around.
Oh, and given the way the market is going, endowments aren’t likely to provide much of a cushion either, especially at schools whose endowments aren’t the size of some countries’ GDP.
Essentially, then, many colleges are going to have no choice but to try to attract more full-pay students; indeed, their survival will depend upon their ability to attract tuition dollars. Schools that fought to stay need-blind, or to only take finances into account at the tail end of the admissions process, will now be forced to consider them in a much more prominent way.
I think that this will particularly be the case at competitive private schools just below the very top rung, places like Emory, WashU (currently forced to compete for many applicants with test-optional U. Chicago), Vanderbilt, Boston College, Northeastern, Boston University, Tulane, and Colgate. At the rung of private colleges below that—schools that have had to take applicants’ finances seriously into account all along—admissions requirements will almost certainly become more lax. At the rungs below that, many institutions may simply close down.
The reality is that there is no easier way to attract full-pay applicants who might not have made the cut otherwise than to make test scores optional.
Given universities’ ostensible commitment to expanding access, this shift will inevitably be couched in all sorts of euphemisms about “increasing equity” and “ensuring that a University of X education remains affordable to the greatest possible number of applicants,” but the bottom line is, well… the bottom line.
One of the things that often gets overlooked in debates involving test scores and socioeconomic is that when considering any given set of applicants to a college in context of their scores and family financial status, only part of the picture is ever available—that is, it is only possible to know the scores from the affluent students who did apply, not from the affluent students who did not.
Yes, well-off students are disproportionately represented among high scorers; nevertheless, average SAT scores for students in the very top income bracket hover around 580 per section—not even remotely competitive for top colleges.
Affluent students with test scores in that range also tend to have access to knowledgeable counselors who can gently discourage them from applying to schools above their punching weight and guide them toward “better fits.” As a result, a substantial number of potential applicants to tippy-top schools are self-removed from the pool before the formal admissions process even begins.
But if those applicants—many of whom presumably have very strong GPAs, given the prevalence of grade inflation—can apply test-optional, then the calculus changes. Some of those otherwise borderline applicants will now have a very real shot, particularly if they apply early—which affluent students are again more likely to be in a position to do.
On the bright side, with the veneer of meritocracy removed, wealthy parents will no longer be faced with the temptation to buy off proctors and have their children’s scores changed.
But for everyone else, it’ll be a different story.
First, for students who are aiming high, I think it’s unlikely that the Ivies and their peers will go test-optional: they have enough money to weather the storm, and they’ll always be able to attract enough qualified full-pay applicants. Besides, they need to maintain the optics of high standards and set themselves apart from the schools a notch below. Without test scores, applications could also balloon to an unmanageable degree, jeopardizing the integrity of the entire process. I could be wrong on this, of course, but that’s my gut sense.
The second reason involves financial aid, specifically merit aid. Increasingly, I suspect, test scores will be used as a lure for high-income/high-scoring applicants whose stats will help boost rankings. They’ve already been used that way for a while, but the practice is likely to increase. From a college’s perspective, offering $10,000/year to an applicant whose family is solidly in the top 3% certainly beats offering $60,000/year to an applicant whose family is in the bottom 50%. Full-freight scholarships will still exist, of course, but they will likely be even more competitive than before.
In addition, test scores will almost certainly continue to be required for selective programs, particularly ones in STEM fields. It’s one thing for a small school like Worcester Polytechnic to go test-optional, but that’s much less likely to happen in highly competitive engineering programs at large, well-known universities like Purdue.
Furthermore, if the larger schools they are attached to are test-optional, then the overall average scores of admitted applicants will rise (because lower-scoring applicants will not submit scores), further ramping up the pressure to score well and driving already high-achieving students to prep more intensely.
The result may be an exaggerated version of what some elite colleges are already experiencing: a study body that tilts heavily toward the highly affluent, plus a substantial cohort of high-achieving low-income students (frequently admitted with help from programs like QuestBridge), and then a big gap in the middle.
So while the pandemic will shake up the admissions and enrollment landscape in ways that will not become fully clear for a while, it’s also likely to accelerate existing trends and throw them into much sharper relief.