5 things you didn’t know about test optional admissions

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5 things you didn’t know about test optional admissions

We explore five common myths surrounding test-optional admission policies—as well as advice for institutions considering implementing similar policies on their campus.

Adopting a test-optional admissions policy is far from a new idea. Many regional public institutions have effectively been test-optional for decades. Bowdoin College—a selective liberal arts institution in Maine—went test-optional in 1969. Recently, however, the trend has received a surge in attention. In 2015 alone, 47 institutions announced new test-optional policies. Many enrollment managers now feel pressure to revisit whether a change in their current admissions policies can help them better achieve their institutional enrollment goals.

Why have such a broad range of institutions shown interest in test-optional? Our research at EAB’s Marketing and Recruitment Effectiveness Center identified three shared objectives:

  1. To increase applications and enrollments by removing a barrier to application completion and expanding the number of students who may consider applying.
  2. To boost diversity. Data consistently show a correlation between test scores and certain demographic characteristics. Standardized tests disproportionately disadvantage low-income, racial and ethnic minorities, and first-generation students, since they often lack the resources their peers do to engage in the intensive test preparation. Many schools have considered dropping or “de-emphasizing” test scores to level the playing field for these otherwise qualified applicants.
  3. To stay ahead of competitors. Some institutions anticipate a scenario where all campuses will eventually go test-optional and are hoping to make the change now to benefit from the publicity they can attain while these policies are still an application differentiator.

Five myths about test-optional policies

The reality of developing and launching a new policy does not always line up with many institutions’ expectations. EAB’s research reviewed the efforts and results at a wide variety of institutions that have adopted test-optional admissions policies. While their experiences varied, some common lessons emerged across the schools, some of which contradict accepted wisdom. Below are the five most common myths surrounding test-optional policies:

1. Adopting a test-optional policy requires a trade-off in “student academic profile”

Enrollment managers are likely to encounter concerns from some faculty who see test scores as an important way to vet incoming students, particularly those applying to prestigious and in-demand programs. The data, however, says otherwise. William Hiss, the former dean of admission at Bates College and a thought leader in test-optional policies, found that score submitters and non-submitters performed and graduated at the same rates across a 20-year period.

2. Only liberal arts colleges and open-access institutions are going test-optional

The test-optional admissions movement is actually picking up steam across institution types. Currently, 230 public colleges and universities—including flagships in California and Texas—and 460 private, nonprofit schools are test-optional. This number includes a growing number of research universities, such as Wake Forest and George Washington University. At publishing of this post, 180 schools with published rankings from US News & World Report have adopted some model of test-optional admissions.

3. You will face a lot of pushback

Receptivity to a test-optional policy will vary greatly from institution to institution, and there is anecdotal evidence of various constituent groups, from faculty to parents to senior administrators, being resistant or skeptical of the transition.

However, the climate around this issue has largely changed, with many institutions reporting that their faculty are incredibly supportive of the move, in some cases even initiating it. As these policies often align closely with the goals outlined in institutions’ strategic plans, there has been more widespread energy and support behind these shifts. Some campuses have even reported that activism on the part of students and faculty have been the driving force for moving forward with a test-optional policy.

4. Test-optional is the solution to attaining diversity goals

While the conventional wisdom predicts that going test-optional will enhance enrollment by underrepresented students, the evidence is mixed. In fact, two recent cross-institutional studies found conflicting results. One study, which surveyed 180 selective liberal arts institutions, found no statistical difference in enrollment of low-income and minority students; the other, a study of 33 diverse institutions, found an increase in minority enrollment of six percentage points. One institution that MREC consulted has increased its percentage of minority students from 10% to 25% in the ten years it has had a test-optional policy in place. However, that institution has made so many other changes to expand access across that time period, making it difficult to pinpoint the standalone impact of the new policy on enrollment trends.

A test-optional strategy may be an important component of creating a more equitable admissions process, but it is often just the first step in a more comprehensive program of change. It removes an important barrier that disproportionately disadvantages underrepresented student groups. However, the same groups often face other informational, financial, social, and educational barriers to accessing and enrolling in our institutions, which must be addressed through a holistic review of admissions and recruitment strategies.

5. The transition to test-optional is a simple and isolated decision

Enrollment managers at institutions that have adopted a test-optional policy emphasize the unforeseen ripple effect on established institutional processes. There are implications for the broader admissions decision making process, financial aid award calculations, and marketing and recruitment. Some important questions to ask include:

  • Will scores be optional for all students, or just those above a certain GPA threshold?
  • Will we amend admissions criteria to compensate (and how)?
  • How will we calculate merit awards for students who don’t submit scores?

As with most new and evolving policies, there many variables that can impact its success. Each institution must decide whether test-optional is the right fit for its strategic goals, institutional culture, and enrollment priorities. Understanding the truth behind common myths is just the first step to determining whether to move forward with test-optional admissions as an enrollment strategy.

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