(photo by Bryce Lanham, Wikimedia Commons)


The University of Chicago has become the first of the truly elite schools to adopt a test-optional policy, which will take effect for the class of 2023.

From UChicago’s website:

The University of Chicago on June 14 launched the UChicago Empower Initiative, a test-optional admissions process to enhance the accessibility of its undergraduate College for first-generation and low-income students.

A strategic initiative to address key barriers encountered by underserved and underrepresented students, the UChicago Empower Initiative has three areas of focus: the use of technology for greater flexibility in the admissions process, including making submissions of standardized test scores optional; increased financial support, on-campus programming and online resources for first-generation, rural and underrepresented students, with full tuition aid for students whose families earn less than $125,000; and new scholarships and access programs to recognize those who serve our country and local communities. Each aims to empower historically underrepresented communities in the highly selective admissions process by increasing equity and access. (https://news.uchicago.edu/story/uchicago-launches-test-optional-admissions-process-expanded-financial-aid-scholarships)

Chicago’s justification for going test-optional is similar to that of other test-optional schools, but I do think that something a little more interesting is going on here – rhetorically at least.

Part of the problem with the current testing landscape is that elite colleges are, broadly speaking, dealing with two very different groups of applicants.

On one hand, there are well-off (primarily white and Asian) students from strong public and private schools – students for whom test scores do paint a generally accurate picture.

On the other hand, there are low-income, first-generation, largely African-American and Latinx students that colleges are trying very hard to recruit, and whose scores may be far less reflective of their academic potential.

The fact that colleges are trying to accommodate both of these groups in a holistic process means that there is essentially a two-tiered system, with different expectations for different groups of applicants. Officially, of course, colleges tend to shy away from admitting this, but it is an open secret.

What is striking about Chicago’s announcement is that it effectively admits as much, to an even greater extent than is the case for other test-optional schools. By explicitly linking the initiative not only to abstract notions of equity but to a larger, formal program designed to bring in particular groups of students (not just first-generation and underrepresented, but also rural students and children of veterans and service members), Chicago is making it abundantly clear just whom the policy is directed towards.

Indeed, an inspection of the language on UChicago’s admissions page confirms that “test-optional” does not mean “don’t send us your test scores”:

The SAT, ACT, and other standard measures can continue to be an important part of the University of Chicago’s holistic admission process for students electing to send scores, and are a required part of the application process at many other highly selective schools. These tests can provide valuable information about a student which we and other colleges will consider alongside the other elements in a student’s application. We encourage students to take standardized tests like the SAT and ACT, and to share your scores with us if you think that they are reflective of your ability and potential…

Translation: if you aren’t in a sought-after demographic and don’t have a damn good reason for going test-optional, you probably won’t get in without scores.

That isn’t to say that a handful of exceptionally bright, well-qualified, non-disadvantaged students who choose not to submit scores won’t be admitted, but they will almost certainly be the very rare exceptions that confirm the rule. That’s just how holistic admissions works.

We are, after all, talking about a university that had nearly 27,700 applications (and accepted just over 2,400) for the class of 2021. From a purely logistical standpoint, test scores will obviously need to continue playing a significant role in the admissions process.

And to state the obvious, there is clearly some self-interest involved here as well. Over the last 10-15 years, UChicago (along with Northeastern) has emerged as the poster-child for gaming the US News and World Report rankings. The university, once ranked around #15, climbed to the #3 spot – tied with Yale – this year. Chicago has been taking on the Ivies very effectively at their own game – and winning.

In addition to throwing down the test-optional gauntlet for the Ivies, Stanford, Duke, etc. (although not MIT or Caltech!) while simultaneously improving the school’s social justice creds, the move is guaranteed to win the university considerable publicity/plaudits, further driving applications up and acceptance rates down.

This is an area in which Chicago excels: when I was applying to college, in 1999, Chicago’s acceptance rate was around 40%; now it’s around 7%. With a test-optional policy in place, that number could easily dip to 5% or lower in the next few years.

From a rankings perspective, of course, the move will only drive Chicago’s average scores higher (which will in turn drive the need for more test-prep for well-off applicants). A glance at the score range for admitted students in the class of 2021 reveals that although the middle 50% of SAT scores ranged from 1460-1550, the bottom SAT score accepted was a 1020, and the lowest ACT score accepted was a 20. (If nothing else, those numbers stand in firm rebuke to the notion that past applicants were viewed as nothing but numbers, and that going test-optional represents some kind of earth-shattering move.) Had a test-optional policy been in place last year, it seems reasonable to assume that students with scores in these ranges would have taken advantage of it, thus relieving Chicago of the obligation to factor those numbers into its averages. This way, Chicago – like every other test-optional school – can have its cake and eat it too.

In some ways, this is just as much an indictment of the control the USNWR rankings exert over the admissions process as it is of colleges’ practice of altering their admissions processes to emphasize the factors that USNWR values.

Colleges know that scores are, when considered appropriately and in context, a useful tool for gaining a general sense of what a transcript actually means, and where applicants stand relative to their peers– otherwise, they wouldn’t have bothered to ask for them all these years. And while the difference between a 570 and a 670 might in fact just reflect the amount and quality of Applicant A’s prep relative to Applicant B, there is a very real difference between the knowledge of a student scoring 800 vs. one scoring 500. Test scores might be limited in what they can reveal, but that does not mean they reveal nothing.

It seems more honest to look at the scores to obtain a full picture of applicants’ academic preparation and then admit some of them anyway, despite the low scores – just as Chicago presumably did for the lowest scorers in the class of 2021. But the weight that USNWR gives to test scores encourages institutions to shy away from obtaining that information in the first place.

Eliminating testing requirements also obscures the way in which underrepresented applicants actually make their way to elite campuses, and makes the process seem more open than it actually is. Many such students are accepted via programs such as QuestBridge, or the Posse Foundation, or one of the other initiatives that help prepare underprivileged students gain admission to highly selective colleges – they have been prepped and vetted and vouched for before their applications even cross the desk of an admissions officer, making their scores less important than they might be otherwise. (One 2014 NY Times article suggested that top colleges were essentially outsourcing recruitment of low-income students to such programs.)

Finally, one last point. Among test-optional colleges, Chicago is – to my knowledge, at least – alone in targeting children of police officers and fire fighters. That is, students who are more likely to come from families who lean right. Politically, this is an extraordinarily savvy move. It allows the university to advance a social-justice narrative while simultaneously heading off accusations of pandering exclusively to under-prepared minorities and dodging the kind of backlash the program might otherwise create. It also allows Chicago to maintain its image as a bulwark against the excesses of political correctness – the institution that proudly launched a campaign (at least on paper) against “safe spaces.” This is a very narrow line to walk, but Chicago seems to be managing it better than a lot of other institutions.

So, the question now stands: will Chicago’s move finally prompt its peer institutions to take similar steps? This is one to keep a very close eye on.