The Future of Test Optional Admissions
For years, the movement to make the SAT/ACT optional for college admissions remained a real, but frankly negligible, presence in the debate over which students get into which colleges, and why.
And then we had a pandemic, which made it impossible for students to gather and take the SAT and ACT exams, which meant colleges had to use other means to select students for their incoming classes, and suddenly test optional admissions were ubiquitous.
As concerns about the pandemic have faded, it’s worth looking at the landscape of test optional policies to see what we’ve learned.
Here are the questions we’re going to explore:
- What effect have test optional policies had on college admissions?
- What are schools going to do about test optional policies going forward?
- What should students and parents know about test optional policies as they make decisions about applying to colleges?
Effects of test optional policies on college admissions
Proponents of test optional policies or even of eliminating the use of standardized tests altogether have long argued that the SAT and ACT discriminate against poor and minority students, putting them at a disadvantage when it comes to college admissions.
There is some evidence from a Maguire Associates poll of college admissions professionals, that going test optional has increased the number of minority students applying to college, as part of an overall increase in the number of applications.
Over half of those surveyed said they saw a somewhat or significantly improved impact on the number of applications from “historically underserved communities,” and the percentage of students eligible for Pell Grant assistance increased. Another study from researchers at Seton Hall found that test optional policies significantly increased the number of applications from first generation students.
While research is ongoing and we have yet to see studies that encompass the full period of the pandemic and its effects on admissions, it does appear that test optional admissions policies are getting more students to take the first step to college matriculation.
Test optional going forward
In a significant move, the entire University of California system announced in May of 2021 that it was dropping the use of SAT and ACT tests entirely when it comes to University admissions. The decision came out of the settlement of a lawsuit in which a coalition of student groups argued that use of the tests was biased against minority students. Until at least 2025, none of the over 225,000 students who enroll annually in the University of California system will even submit an SAT or ACT score.
Many other colleges, having seen the benefits of increased applicant pools, have extended their test optional policies for the time being, and the assumption is that as long as they can fill their freshman cohorts with qualified students without seeing declines in graduation rates, they’ll continue to do so. As of now, all evidence points to no differences in terms of graduation for students who did submit scores versus those who did not.
This is having a ripple effect on the test makers themselves as they battle for market share in this space and attempt to alter the exams in ways that will make them more useful to schools. It’s a tough task given the decades of data that suggest that SAT/ACT scores offer very little, if any, predictive power about a student’s performance in college. It seems likely that the tests will continue to change, and therefore the way students who want to prepare for them will have to change as well.
Purdue University is going against the trend towards test optional, saying it will reinstate mandatory test scores for students applying by fall of 2024. Eighty percent of Purdue applicants are already submitting scores, so the new policy will only affect a minority of those applying.
Nonetheless, the momentum appears to be on the side of those who advocate for test optional or even no reporting of scores whatsoever. If experiments like those at the University of California system show what many already suspect — that tests are not a necessity when it comes to admission decisions — then enthusiasm for using the SAT and ACT will continue to decline.
What students and parents should know
The first thing is to recognize that even before the rise of test optional policies, the SAT and ACT primarily only mattered when it came to students applying to highly selective universities. For a little bit of perspective, people should know that 50% of all students end up enrolling in colleges that accept at least 80% of their applicants.
Another factor looming on the horizon is the coming “demographic cliff” in traditional college-age students, starting in 2025. This is the year children born during the 2008 recession will be applying, a cohort that’s 15% smaller than the years before them. Essentially, schools, which are dependent on tuition revenue to keep the lights on will be competing for a smaller total number of students, and they will be doing anything they can to make themselves more attractive to applicants.
But for now, most admissions professionals suggest that students who are at least considering applying to a selective college or university should take the SAT or ACT, or even both.
But as Akil Bello, a nationally-recognized expert in the use and abuse of these tests reminded me when I reached out to him for comment, if you can take the time and money that would be spent on prepping for “an ineffective tool” and instead dedicate it to school, students would be better off in the long run.
And for students who find the exams unduly stressful or have a hard time performing up to their capacity, know that there are a lot of schools where students without scores are not penalized on admissions, with more schools adding themselves to that list all the time.
If you can generate a list of prospective schools that are test optional — or don’t require tests at all — that you’re happy with, by all means, forget about the SAT and ACT, and never look back.