Test-Optional College Admissions Policies Aren’t Necessarily Increasing Student Diversity on Campuses

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

Many US colleges have made the SAT and ACT tests optional elements in the application process in order to increase student diversity on campus, but doing so has not necessarily had the intended effect, Jill Barshay reported for The Hechinger Report in October 2022. Barshay’s article cited the findings of a 2021 study of nearly 100 private colleges that adopted test-optional policies between 2005-06 and 2015-16, which found that the representation of Black, Latino, and Native American students increased by just one percent overall. A 2015 study of “selective” liberal arts colleges that adopted test-optional policies prior to 2011 found that “on average, test-optional policies enhance the perceived selectivity, rather than the diversity, of participating institutions.”

Barshay’s report also cited research conducted by Kelly Slay of Vanderbilt University who conducted interviews with admissions officers in 2022. Slay found that admissions officers were concerned that replacing tests potentially made the application process even more biased towards wealthy, White applicants. Without test scores, colleges rely more heavily on letters of recommendation and expensive extracurricular activities, which often favor wealthier, White students. “One college purchased a data service that ranked high schools and factored those high school rankings into each application. Students from underserved high schools received a lower ranking, an admissions officer explained. It wasn’t a fair process,” Barshay wrote.

Slay also discovered that admissions officers struggled to determine if schools could really be considered test-optional or not, since exam scores are used for certain scholarships and to determine course placement once admitted.

Admissions officers who have been trained to review applications with accompanying test scores often found it difficult to compare applications when some included test scores and others did not. One admissions officer told Slay, “I think the students that do have the strong test scores still do have that advantage, especially when you have a student that has strong test scores versus a student who doesn’t have test scores and everything else on the academics is more or less the same.”

In April 2022, NBC News published a report of its own on the effects of test-optional admissions policies for student diversity on campus colleges. Cornell University, NBC News reported, saw a fifty percent increase in admissions of first-generation students after it adopted a test-optional admissions policy to recruit a more diverse class. However, the NBC News report focused primarily on Cornell, which had also hired several new admissions officers, and it did not consider other institutions that lack funding to hire additional admissions officers. NBC’s report endorsed Cornell’s test-optional policy as the primary cause of the positive change in its enrollments, but changes in the university’s budget for financial aid could have contributed to the jump in the school’s number of first-generation student applicants.

Source: Jill Barshay, “Proof Points: Colleges That Ditched Test Scores for Admissions Find It’s Harder to Be Fair in Choosing Students, Researcher Says,” The Hechinger Report, October 17, 2022.

Student Researcher: Gabriela D’Emilio (SUNY Cortland)

Faculty Evaluator: Christina Knopf (SUNY Cortland)