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When Colleges Do Nice Things, Watch Out

Regardless of how you feel about altruistic behavior, we can all agree that most seemingly selfless acts contain at least a modicum of self-interest. If anyone informs you that they are doing something “purely for your own benefit,” beware ulterior motives. Colleges are no different.

Although colleges may market admissions policies as student-friendly, you can assume these policies are intended to benefit the colleges. Most are designed to improve selectivity, yield, or student demographics. Take, for example, test-optional policies. So far, over 800 colleges and universities have decided to go test-optional, not requiring SAT or ACT test scores in favor of more focus on a student’s GPA and “softer” factors–interviews, essays, etc. Many have championed the test-optional admissions approach, claiming that such an approach benefits low-income students and minorities, who are less likely to submit competitive test scores.

At first blush, it does appear that the adoption of a test-optional admissions process may provide a more level playing field to all students. However, a recent article published in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis by Andrew Belasco et. al. suggests that test-optional colleges, not students, may be benefitting most from these policies.

Despite the stated objective of test-optional admissions processes, Belasco found that the test-optional schools studied showed no significant gains in enrollment from low-income or minority students between 1992 and 2010. According to his research, test-optional colleges “enrolled a lower proportion of Pell recipients and underrepresented minorities, on average, than test-requiring institutions.”

By contrast, schools appear to be reaping significant benefits from moving to test-optional admissions processes. Belasco found these schools report higher average SAT scores. This finding makes sense, since students who perform poorly on the SAT will choose not to report their scores, while high-scoring students will still be motivated to report. The study also noted that test-optional schools saw a higher number of applications, increasing the colleges’ selectivity. Both test scores and selectivity factor into college rankings.

Of course, testing policies aren’t the only admissions decisions that colleges spin as primarily beneficial to students.

This past year, Georgia Tech made the decision to switch to the Common Application (“Common App”). Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admissions, stated that the goal of the switch was to “continue to diversify campus from a geographic, academic, and socioeconomic standpoint.” But when we compare the 2013 and 2014 freshman classes, it’s hard to see how the switch to Common App moved the needle on these goals. About half of the freshman class remains largely white (moving from 53% to 51%), and an increased percentage of the class will hail from the southeast (71%, up from 67% last year). The school’s 50th percentile SAT scores inched up 30-50 points (2050-2240, up from 2000-2210 in 2013), and its median ACT scores remained about the same (30-33, compared to 29-33 in 2013). For all of its additional applicants, Georgia Tech seems to have accepted a very similar group of students this year as it has in the past.

Let’s consider another outcome of Georgia Tech’s switch to the Common App. Applications surged 46% (from 17,678 to 25,880), while the number of students admitted increased from 7,257 to 8,560. The number of students who decided to add GT to their list of Common App schools had the effect of increasing Georgia Tech’s selectivity from 41% to 33%. With selectivity factoring heavily in college rankings, Georgia Tech can thank the Common App for an improved reputation. Here we have another admission decision that, while failing to reach its intended goal of diversifying the student body, certainly seems to have helped the institution.

Of course, test-optional and application submission policies do benefit various students. My own admission process was made significantly less stressful because I was able to submit one application to several different schools. By deciding to apply to test-optional schools, many students have been able to combat test anxiety or spend more time on extracurricular activities, studying for class, or writing their admissions essays. Nevertheless, when we consider the policies in light of their intended goal of improving the diversity of schools’ student bodies, they fall short.

What does this mean for a prospective student and his/her family? If you receive a brochure from a certain college inviting you to apply, or even an admission fee waiver, keep in mind that the school may have other reasons for seeking your application besides mere goodwill. It may be attempting to improve its selectivity by boosting its number of applications, in which case it is inviting more applications that it plans on rejecting. Also, if you are considering test-optional schools, you may be entering a more, not less, competitive environment. Without SAT/ACT scores to factor into students’ applications, test-optional schools will need to place more emphasis on the other numbers it has available, namely, high school GPAs. Make sure the other factors in your application are strong enough to stand on their own without the added bonus of a solid test score.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Don’t let the admissions process make you cynical about everything, but keep in mind that if a college seems to offer you a “great deal,” it probably has its own reasons for doing so.


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