Can Colleges Go Too Far with Test Blind Admissions?
Over the past four years I have written two posts about test blind admissions. My first was about Hampshire College, a rather eclectic school that was once on the brink of closing. My second was about Northern Illinois University, a regional public university that recently made the decision to go test blind. Today I read that Dickinson College (PA), a selective liberal arts college, moved to test blind admissions for this admissions cycle.
The move to test blind admissions by these schools is understandable. Admissions officers at small colleges read an application more thoroughly than their colleagues at much larger schools. Regional universities such as Northern Illinois have an obligation to educate area students at a reasonable cost. If the school is located in a region that has lost population and jobs, it makes sense to forget about test scores, and try to attract as many students as possible to deposit. Over 40 percent of college students attend schools like Northern Illinois.
There are nearly 400 regional public colleges in our country like Northern Illinois. All of them could go test blind and attract no worse than the same students they attract now. The same is true for schools for visual and performing and smaller private colleges that serve regional markets. This is also true for flagship state schools that do not have overly selective admissions.
If you are evaluating students based on their talents, or your school has a mission to serve a community or state that goes beyond selective admissions, why put your market through the hassles of standardized testing?
But last week, a California State Supreme Court judge ruled that the University of California System could not use ACT or SAT results in making admissions decisions. In effect, all of these schools would need to evaluate candidates test blind. During the 2019-20 cycle the University of California schools attracted between 26,000 (Merced) and 109,000 applications (UCLA).
It’s possible to see UC-Merced move to test blind admissions. But I have my doubts about a school like UCLA.
At UC-Merced the middle 50% of the current freshman class scored between 980 and 1260 on the SAT, and between 18 and 27 on the ACT. For comparisons sake, the mean ACT at Northern Illinois has been a 22 since 2010. Merced is the UC System’s newest campus with shortest history and the fewest majors. The university is also trying to seek geographic diversity, at least in California. Last year 42 percent of the entering class came from Southern California. Thirty-two percent came from Northern California and 30 percent came from the center or central coast of the state. High school grades matter here. The middle 50 percent of the incoming class had high school GPAs between 3.4 and 4.0. But it’s not like UCLA. A good to very good student has a better-than-average chance of being admitted to UC-Merced. Test blind admissions will not change that.
At UCLA the middle 50 percent of the class scored between 1350 and 1550 on the SAT, and between 31 and 35 on the ACT. They also had high school GPAs over 4.0. If the 25th percentile in the class scored in the 90th percentile or higher on standardized tests, then the scores mattered. Chances are good that the art, film, music and theatre majors tested well. If UCLA was already turning away 85 percent of the applicants who wanted to come, and many had excellent grades, the university likely used test scores to separate candidates, especially those who came from the same California high school.
Outside of visual and performing artists with excellent grades, I cannot imagine how to apply a test blind admissions process to a school that attracted over 100,000 applications. That would still require a methodology that will still leave many people unhappy.
UC admissions offices use many factors for a holistic review. UCLA has eight, plus the major, outside of the College of Letters and Sciences. Suppose the admissions office could not use scores, and relied on the other factors. UCLA is a more national university than Merced. It attracts students from other states and countries, and will no doubt need their tuition money. It’s tempting to offer them more seats. But California universities also try hard to be sensitive to diversity among Californians. The UC system also has the Blue and Gold Plan to help families with lower incomes and it also has the Middle Class Scholarship. If you can use other people’s money, in this case the university system’s money, to lower costs for students, it’s reasonable to expect the admissions office to consider candidates who are eligible to receive that money. It’s also reasonable to try to fill the rest of the seats with Californians who do not need financial aid, and still consider diversity.
Californians are likely to send a record number of applications to their home state system during a pandemic. Some applicants with high GPAs, but lower than school average test scores or no scores at all, might benefit from test blind admissions. Something tells me that a record number will be unhappy, even under test blind admissions. It will be a matter of numbers. The easier the application process become, more people will apply, and more will be denied.
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