Some people gasped when they saw the news. “Boom!” a college counselor in Minnesota shouted while waiting for his English muffin to toast. Here we go! one pleasantly surprised enrollment official in Illinois thought to himself before taking an early morning shower. “This,” an excited professor in North Carolina wrote in an email, “is outstanding news.”
On Thursday, the University of Chicago announced that it would no longer require the ACT/SAT for admission, becoming the most-selective institution ever to adopt a test-optional policy. With that, the South Side campus caused an admissions-obsessed planet to wobble. Several deans and college counselors predict that the move will soon prompt other high-profile colleges to abandon their testing requirements. At the very least, the national conversation about testing has changed, probably for good.
As The Washington Post first reported, Chicago has unveiled a broad initiative to increase access for low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented students. Dropping its testing requirement for all domestic applicants is just one part of the plan (those who don’t submit scores will still be eligible for the university’s merit scholarships, officials say).
The university, which boasts an endowment of nearly $8-billion, will greatly expand its financial-aid program, offering full-tuition scholarships to students whose families earn less than $125,000 a year, as well as $20,000 in scholarships over four years and a guaranteed paid summer internship for all first-generation students. Chicago will expand funding for veterans and the children of veterans, firefighters, and police officers. It will also provide additional mentoring and support for underserved students who enroll.
Starting this fall, Chicago will invite applicants to send a two-minute video “introduction.” That idea echoes Goucher College’s recent embrace of video as a means of connecting with teenagers who grew up filming themselves with smartphones.
The test-optional piece of that puzzle, though, could shake up an entire profession. For years, critics of ACT/SAT requirements have said that a tipping point would come if and when one of the nation’s highest-ranked, super-selective colleges deemed the exams unnecessary. For those keeping score, Chicago is tied for No. 3 in U.S. News & World Report’s 2018 college rankings; the acceptance rate for this fall’s freshman class was 7 percent.
“This certainly feels like a big Antarctic ice shelf just fell into the ocean,” said William C. Hiss, a former dean of admissions and financial aid at Bates College and a leading proponent of test-optional policies.
Not to be outdone in the chilly-metaphors department, Robert A. Schaeffer, public education director at the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, said the announcement could be a “huge ice-breaker” for highly selective institutions already questioning their testing policies, some of which “have been hesitant to go first.”
Though Chicago is especially selective, the story of its test-optional conversion is by now familiar. In an interview with The Chronicle, James G. Nondorf, Chicago’s vice president for enrollment, said the new policy arose from continuing discussions of how the university could enhance recruitment and support of low-income and first-generation students.
In 2016-17, about 10 percent of Chicago’s undergraduates qualified for federal Pell Grants. What was working against the university’s aim to expand that number and further diversify the campus?
Ever since Chicago introduced a plan to increase college access and expand need-based aid a few years ago, Nondorf has heard positive feedback from around the country. Yet he also has heard lingering concerns about what some people described as enduring barriers to access: One of those was Chicago’s testing requirement.
“It was time that we looked at the application process and made sure it was fair for everyone,” Nondorf said. “High-school counselors will tell you about a kid who would be a perfect fit for Chicago, who’s not a good tester but who’s talented in other ways, but who chose not to apply. You have enough of those interactions, and it tells you that the requirement is holding some students back, that it’s scaring them away.”
When a college scrutinizes its testing requirements, it tends to look both outward and inward. That means considering the needs and backgrounds of students it wishes to serve while assessing whether admissions policies help it meet specific goals, such as increasing socioeconomic diversity. The task requires number-crunching.
Chicago officials analyzed plenty of internal data, Nondorf explained. “You spend a lot of time looking at students who don’t do well,” he said. What parts of their applications might have indicated early on that they would struggle? “It certainly wasn’t testing,” Nondorf said. (Three quarters of freshmen last year had a 1480 or better.)
Many colleges have found that students’ transcripts — their high-school grades and rigor of courses — are the most-valuable predictors of future performance. “The transcript tells such a powerful story for us,” Nondorf said. “We went from department to department to see who the stars were. Does testing tell us who’s going to be the best art historian? The answer is No.”
Before Nondorf rushed off to a meeting on Thursday, he sounded winded but happy while describing the new initiative. “I am ecstatic,” he said.
He wasn’t alone. Throughout the admissions realm, many observers described the announcement as significant. Andrew B. Palumbo was making breakfast for his two daughters when he saw the news. Chicago’s stated reasons for the new policy, he thought, were just as important as the announcement itself.
Palumbo is dean of admissions and financial aid at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, which dropped its testing requirement 10 years ago. Since that time, other universities considering the same move have sought insights from WPI.
“I expected that Chicago will play a similar role for its peer group,” he said. “The decision to go test-optional is an institutional one that involves many stakeholders. Inevitably, some stakeholders will seek the comfort of knowing a peer university has already taken this step.”
Jon Boeckenstedt applauded the decision, too. He’s associate vice president for enrollment management and marketing at DePaul University, which stopped requiring the ACT/SAT in 2011.
“I’m impressed that they were brave enough to follow the research they’ve undoubtedly done wherever it led them,” he said of Chicago. “It is a big risk for a university that already occupies a lofty place in the hierarchy, but I believe it speaks to their genuine commitment to improve access, especially when coupled with their financial-aid commitment.”
Many colleges could drop the ACT/SAT, Boeckenstedt noted, but only a handful of places could back it up with a big financial commitment: “You just have to say, ‘Well done,’ to them on this.”
Most colleges lack Chicago’s immense resources. Going test-optional is one thing; throwing giant aid packages at students is another. Yet Richard A. Clark, director of undergraduate admission at Georgia Tech, said Chicago’s one-two punch is meaningful, even for institutions with tighter budgets: “It makes everybody stop and ask, ‘Can we do this? What are we doing for these underserved populations?’”
Before anyone gets carried away, though, it’s worth keeping a few things in mind. The first is that ACT and SAT, long fixtures of the admissions process, aren’t about to vanish just because one big-name private college made a bold move.
As the ACT and College Board noted in written statements on Thursday, more students than ever before are taking the two exams. Also, the vast majority of all applications to four-year colleges go to campuses that require the ACT/SAT. And many colleges still require incoming students to submit test scores for various purposes besides admission.
In an email, a College Board spokesman noted widespread concerns about high-school grade inflation, including how the phenomenon might affect lower-income students, and also touted its free “personalized practice” program. And an ACT spokesman’s email included this reminder: “Moving to a test-optional policy may also lead to corollary benefits for a college — benefits that don’t necessarily extend to students.”
Just because a thought comes from the mouth of a testing giant doesn’t mean it’s not true. By all means, even an apparently well-intentioned testing policy doesn’t guarantee a particular outcome, which some research seems to affirm. In 2015, for instance, researchers at the University of Georgia published a report concluding that selective liberal-arts colleges that had adopted test-optional policies hadn’t increased their enrollment of underrepresented minority or Pell-eligible students. And who could forget one college president’s harshly worded claim that test-optional policies are merely a superficial ploy for status in the “admissions arms race”?
Even supporters of the policies offer important caveats. “Test-optional is not a panacea,” Boeckenstedt, at DePaul, told The Chronicle recently. “It works around the edges of the admit pool, but it has incremental value.”
As with any facet of the admissions process, a test-optional strategy is a basket of nuances. Sure, such a policy might help a college attract more low-income and underrepresented applicants, some of whom might, in fact, lack great ACT/SAT scores. Yet it will probably appeal to other kinds of students, too. DePaul officials have been surprised by how many applicants from affluent schools have applied under the university’s test-optional plan — even if they have solid scores.
Oh, and a 50-percent increase in first-generation applicants isn’t the same as as 50-percent increase in first-generation students admitted or enrolled. A college still has to give that test-optional applicant a precious acceptance.
Though blanket statements are tough to make in admissions, students who don’t submit scores tend to have a tougher path to admission than score submitters do, according to Andrew Flagel, senior vice president for students and enrollment at Brandeis University. “Getting in through a score-optional program is often more competitive,” he says. “That’s because you’re weighting even more on that academic record. A student who may be a little more borderline on academic record who has exceptional scores can help themselves. Whereas a student with a mediocre academic record who decides to go score optional is rarely helping themselves.”
A student with good grades and so-so scores might seem like an ideal candidate for test-optional admission. But if the high school is less than stellar, with limited advanced-course offerings and few opportunities to pursue extracurricular activities, the student’s odds of getting into many selective institutions are still going to be long.
None of that is news to Sara Urquidez, who leads the Academic Success Program, a nonprofit group in Dallas that provides college advisers to many of the city’s public high schools. She has long observed that test-optional policies typically favor students from high schools with the most-rigorous curricula.
Nonetheless, Urquidez cheered when she read about Chicago’s new policy. “The idea that a highly selective institution would consider looking beyond the numbers is mind-boggling,” she said. She meant that in a good way.
Though the university’s policy would surely put more weight on “school context,” transcripts, and the other application components, Urquidez said, it shows high-achieving, low-income students that test scores wouldn’t define them. On Thursday she discussed the news with a handful of college students who had been part of the Academic Success Program. The consensus? “It’s nice,” she said, “to see a highly selective institution recognize that those scores are heavily impacted by tutors and the ability to take the test as many times as one wishes to, which ultimately correlates to socioeconomic status.”
Abdiel Montes was one of those students. Growing up in a low-income section of Dallas, he took the SAT three times. His high score was a 1260 (out of 1600). He was discouraged when some of his friends got much higher scores, so much so that at the last minute he decided not to apply to Chicago, one of the universities on his list. After reading about the scores that many of Chicago’s incoming students had, he just didn’t think he stood a chance.
“It was discouraging,” he recalls. “I felt I was unprepared to take the test, and finding the motivation was difficult.”
Ultimately, Montes took the ACT, earning a 28 (out of 36). Now a sophomore at the University of Southern California, he still remembers his anxiety about standardized tests: “It so often happens that students who don’t do well on tests have this feeling of discouragement, this fear of rejection.” The more high-profile colleges that go test-optional, he believes, the more institutions can help erase those feelings.
It remains to be seen how Chicago’s test-optional policy will affect the college-access picture on the South Side’s world-famous campus. Doubters have every right to view the situation skeptically. After all, talking up college-access initiatives has become another means of self-promotion among the nation’s most-desired colleges. And as any enrollment manager could tell you, going test-optional will surely deliver even more applications to a campus.
Urquidez and other advocates for underrepresented students will be watching closely to see what happens at Chicago. And Nondorf, the university’s dean of admissions, said he would be watching closely, too. He described the institution’s access initiative as an experiment designed to help first-generation college students like himself, a kid who ended up going to Yale.
“For years I’ve been saying to students, ‘It’s not all about the tests,’” he told The Chronicle. “Now I’m putting my money where my mouth is.”
If nothing else, Chicago’s surprising announcement removes perhaps the biggest “Yeah, but” argument long thrown at the hundreds colleges that stopped requiring tests: Yeah, but … you’re not that selective or famous.
Once, test-optional policies were more or less synonymous with small liberal-arts colleges. Now that a brand-name university has joined the mix, the question everyone’s asking is, Who’s next?