When it comes time to apply for college, taking the SAT or ACT has long been an item on every student’s check list. Students typically study for weeks on end, some invest in prep classes, and many even sit for their test multiple times until they achieve a score they’re satisfied with.
Submitting standardized test scores has traditionally been a fundamental admissions requirement at four-year institutions – something that was once mandated nationwide. But all of the customary preparation and anticipation that comes with taking the SAT or ACT may become less and less a part of the quintessential prospective student experience.
A growing number of colleges and universities have begun adopting test-optional admissions policies in recent years. And the global pandemic has only pushed more schools to join this group, as in-person testing opportunities have become scarce.
But the motivations for adopting this new admissions model go far beyond that. We’re exploring the reasons we’re seeing a record number of test-optional colleges across the higher education landscape and examine the impact this trend has on college enrollment and student outcomes.
Why are schools choosing to go test-optional?
According to recent numbers, more than half of all four-year universities have employed a test-optional approach in their admissions models – with well over one-third of those colleges adopting the change following the COVID-19 outbreak. Schools across the nation have suspended testing requirements, from institutions in Washington state to colleges in Texas, and even Ivy League schools along the East Coast like Cornell, Harvard and Princeton.
But test-optional colleges are more than just a trend we’re seeing in the wake of COVID-19 closures. “Over the last few years, we’ve seen more colleges and universities remove standardized testing requirements altogether or make them optional for admissions requirements,” explains Erin Werthman, senior partner director at Collegis Education.
“What we’re hearing from our partners is that standardized tests are serving as a barrier to admittance for many students.”
“As schools are looking at how to grow their overall enrollment, diversify their student populations, and serve more students, this is a great starting point to open the door to broader student populations,” Werthman elaborates
Education reform groups have long advocated for the removal of standardized testing requirements in college applications. They contend that the SAT and ACT give wealthier students an advantage because their families can afford expensive preparatory courses and coaching services. As such, some charge that standardized tests have racist and/or classist undertones, acknowledging that the tests serve as a proxy for privilege.
Advocates of removing these tests maintain that requiring standardized test scores in college admissions makes it too easy for college officials to eliminate large groups of students from consideration based solely on metrics that have not been shown to predict student success.
“The main advantage to going test-optional,” Werthman summarizes, “is that it removes that barrier to entry for students who have low test scores and prevents schools from eliminating potentially strong candidates who may not test as well, but have solid academic foundations and fit into the culture of the institution.”
What is the impact of a test-optional admissions policy?
Even though this higher education trend has developed somewhat recently, it’s been studied enough to yield some promising findings for schools considering a test-optional approach. A 2018 study actually examined more than two dozen four-year institutions with test-optional policies with the goal of determining their effectiveness.
In comparing test-optional colleges with peer institutions that required testing, it was found that standardized tests do indeed fail to identify applicants who have the potential to be successful in a higher education environment. Further, students who opted to not submit test scores ultimately graduated at rates equivalent to, or slightly higher than, those who submitted their test scores.
It was also revealed that test-optional admissions policies have a positive impact on enrollment numbers – particularly among underrepresented minority students. In the years following the adoption of test-optional policies, higher education institutions saw the total number of applicants increase by an average of 29 percent at private schools and 11 percent at public schools. More specifically, schools that went test-optional saw increases in the numbers of Black and Latino students applying and being admitted to their institutions.
“At Collegis, we believe this has a positive impact on the admissions process, because it gives schools more candidates to review and opens up their pool of potential students,” Werthman notes.
“With the increasingly competitive nature of admissions processes for both undergraduate and graduate programs, schools will be more likely to meet their growth targets if they make it easier for students to submit completed applications.”
Determine whether test-optional is right for your institution
It’s clear there are notable benefits to the growing trend of test-optional colleges – for schools and students alike. “It’s causing all colleges and universities to take a new look at their broader admissions models,” Werthman says. She elaborates that schools need to rethink and reevaluate the process and requirements they have in place in order to determine how they fit into larger institutional goals and objectives.
“Each institution needs to determine what makes the most sense for their student population – that might include making standardized testing optional for some programs and required for others,” she adds.
If the decision-makers at your college or university could use some guidance on crafting effective admissions policies, our team of experts is here for you!