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HOUSTON – Proponents of discretionary admissions often say that repealing requirements that students provide SAT and ACT scores will help tear down barriers that keep historically marginalized groups from applying to college.
Enrollment leaders backed that argument at a session Friday of the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s annual meeting. Presenters shared how their institutions, after establishing test-free policies in recent years, experienced an increase in applications, including those from marginalized students.
NACAC attendees packed a ballroom to learn the latest on the testing landscape, indicating continued interest in the weakening of standardized tests, which until recently had been a cornerstone of the admissions process.
A new normal
An increase in elective admissions can be traced to the coronavirus wending its way through the United States in early 2020, shutting down regular exam venues. But many institutions have maintained test-optional policies even as pandemic-related restrictions eased.
In total, more than 1,800 four-year institutions are not requiring entrance exams for the fall 2023 admissions cycle, according to FairTest, an organization that advocates for limited use of standardized assessments.
The University of Pennsylvania saw a 34% increase in applications in 2020-21, the first year it tested optional policies. Applications increased from about 42,000 to 56,000, according to Whitney Soule, the institution’s vice provost and dean of admissions, who spoke at Friday’s session.
After Penn made the change, it saw a bump in applications from first-generation and international students, as well as from students of color, Soule said. Penn maintained the increased number of applications and the diversity of applications through 2021-22, she said.
Presenters said the pandemic emergency pushed many colleges to test elective admissions. But other institutions adopted this policy to attract more applicants.
“Wherever you are, whatever institution you serve, you have to think about the reasons behind the choice, your expectations of what will happen and change, and then follow them to see if those changes will happen,” Soule said.
Penn maintains test-optional admissions for the upcoming admissions cycle.
A look elsewhere
Queens University of Charlotte, in North Carolina, instituted test-optional policies in 2019, before the pandemic, said Adrienne Amador Oddi, its vice president for strategic enrollment and communications.
That’s partly because it wanted to remove roadblocks for the contingent of students it serves, who are historically underrepresented and very different from those at Penn, Oddi said.
About a third of Queens students are eligible for federal Pell Grants, a proxy for low-income status. Another third are the first in their family to attend college.
The number of applications to Queens has risen steadily over the years, from 3,134 in 2018 to 3,799 this year.
More notable, however, was a change in the university’s academic profile for students after the transition to test-free admissions.
Before the shift, just over half of enrolled students met the university’s academic standards but were at the base level of what the institutions considered college-ready, Oddi said. Queens only considered about 6% of the top academic achievers in the class.
After introducing optional testing, in the new class, the percentage of enrolled students in the bottom tier of academic performance dropped to 43%, and the top tier grew to 9%, Oddi said.
Eliminating the entrance exam requirement attracted more students who had the right grades but felt tests limited them and might not have otherwise applied, Oddi said.
“We’re in that sweet spot of, ‘should I go to college or not?'” Oddi said.
This year, Queens reduced the influence test scores had on how much merit aid it awards, and found that the percentage of top-achieving graduates grew to 15% for the entering class. College admissions advocates often argue that institutions that test electively but hold test scores in financial aid considerations defeat the purpose of elective admissions.
What comes next?
At the University of California, Los Angeles, admission has become test-free. It and all other institutions within the UC system decline to review scores at all. The system largely abandoned the entrance exam mandate in 2020, but did the move permanently last year.
The number of first-year applications increased by 38% after the policy change, from 108,877 in 2020 to 149,815 this year. Applicants who are underrepresented students, which UCLA considers African American, Latino and Native American, increased by 48%, from 30,862 in 2020 to 45,569 in 2022.
Enrollment experts believe test-free policies will become more widespread down the line — the California Institute of Technology, for example, one of the most prominent STEM institutions in the country, will not see points through 2025.
Studies are also underway to determine the effects of test-optional rules on student body demographics and academic chops. NACAC received a $1.4 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help lead research about optional admissions and how it shapes enrollment patterns.
Soule, of Penn, cautioned against analytics linking whether students submit tests to their early college GPAs. She called them reductive and said many other factors affect students’ academic success in their first semesters of college.
The academic experiences on campus are not “entirely informed by the presence or absence of tests,” she said.