Here’s what happened when three colleges, including the University of Pennsylvania, tested optional

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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.

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