Will ‘Test Blind’ Admissions Work at Northern Illinois University?
This week Northern Illinois University announced that admissions will be test blind for the Fall, 2021 admissions cycle. All applicants with a 3.0 GPA or higher in a college preparatory program will be guaranteed admission with no need to submit standardized test scores. The exception: applicants to the Nursing program must submit scores.
Aside from Nursing admissions, test scores will not even be considered for scholarships or admissions to the university’s honors program. The university will also consider applicants whose GPAs are below 3.0 without asking them to submit test scores. The average GPA for the class that arrived in 2018, the only year that I could find data, was a 3.3. Yet 44 percent of those freshmen had a lower GPA, and 28 percent had a GPA below 3.0.
Is it a wise decision for Northern Illinois University to go test blind?
I had to take a look at admissions and enrollment data for the school. If one was to argue that the university had to enroll more students, I would not challenge them. Here are some numbers:
- Northern Illinois University had 18,200 undergraduates in 2010. It had 12,100 this past fall.
- This school welcomed 2,700 freshmen in 2010. There were fewer than 1,900 this past fall
- It also welcomed 1,900 transfer students in 2010. There were just over 1,500 this past fall.
The ACT was the primary test of choice for applicants to this school. The mean ACT has stayed around 22 since 2010. Its fair to state that the test has had value in recent admissions decisions. The acceptance rate for the class that arrived in 2018 was 54 percent. It’s not like the university was accepting everyone who applied.
But interestingly this school attracted a more diverse student body:
- In 2010 the university had an undergraduate population that was 15% African-American and 10% Hispanic.
- In 2019 it was 18% African American and 19% Hispanic.
The university was attracting a smaller, more diverse student body while requiring standardized tests. But it also lost around 30 percent of a freshman class each year, even as those classes got smaller. The four-year graduation rate for the class that arrived in 2010 was a poor 23%. Less than half of those freshmen finished a degree in six years. The class that arrived three years later did just as badly. The class that arrived in 2015 did better; thirty-one percent of those freshmen finished on time. But that’s also a poor performance.
If I was an enrollment manager who wanted to increase enrollment, improve retention and graduation rates at a school like Northern Illinois University, I would seriously consider going test blind if:
- It would help my school attract students who had better high school grades. I can picture a simple message: Are you a B or better student who wants an inexpensive college education? Apply now. It’s easy.
- My school used rolling admissions and took applications all the way into the summer. Northern Illinois University does. It’s hard to ask a graduating high school senior in the very last semester, or very recent high school graduate to prep for a standardized test.
- I learned that test prep was uneven across the students who were in my freshman classes, if I could match test scores to high schools or zip codes. But I would also want to know that those students were no less likely to graduate than their peers who scored better on the ACT. Then I could make the argument that test scores don’t matter.
- I could increase market share within my region. Northern Illinois University is currently a regional school within a 23 country region of Illinois that produced 125,000 high school seniors that includes Chicago and immediate suburbs. The university projects that number to drop by 10,000 over the next seven years. Northern Illinois has an estimated total cost of attendance (tuition, fees, room and board, books, personal expenses and health insurance) of just over $30,300. That’s a lot less than a Chicago-area private college will charge for tuition and fees alone. Lower costs combined with an easier admissions process can help increase market share.
A test-blind admissions policy will likely attract more applicants maybe raise the average high school GPA for the university over the course of four to six years. But I’m more concerned that the school is rolling out a test-blind admissions policy without any written commitments to improving student success.
As a comparison Temple University went test optional for all majors and its Honors Program in July of 2014. But the university had previously announced its student success initiative called Fly in Four to help more students to graduate on time. Fly In Four has really mattered. Temple graduated less than 40 percent of the freshmen who entered in 2010. But the university graduated 55 percent of its first class to commit to Fly in Four, and 56 percent of its second.
I have an impression that Northern Illinois University attracts very average students outside of it’s nursing school and honors program. Without an upgraded student success program, I fear that this university will attract more of the same students, and get more of the same results.