October 17, 2022
One college admissions officer at a large public university described how test-optional admissions had spurred more disagreements in his office. A third reader on an application was often called in to break a tie when one staffer said ‘yes’ and another said ‘no.’ Without SAT and ACT scores, he explained, the job of admitting students had become more subjective and more time-consuming. “I feel like everyone who reviews applications has their own perspective or opinion,” he said.
This sobering anecdote comes from a research project led by Kelly Slay, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University, who has been conducting in-depth interviews with admissions officers in 2022 to understand how the elimination of SAT and ACT testing requirements has been playing out inside colleges and universities. According to Slay, admissions officers often described a “chaotic” and “stressful” process where they lacked clear guidance on how to select students without test scores. Admissions officers at selective colleges were also “overwhelmed” by the volume of applicants that test-optional policies had unleashed.
“One of our key findings were the tensions that were emerging around these test optional policies,” said Slay. “There’s a struggle on how to implement them.”
Slay’s work gives us a rare, unvarnished glimpse inside college admissions offices. It’s especially significant now because a college admissions case is currently before the Supreme Court that could strike down affirmative action, a practice that gives preferences to groups that have been discriminated against. As colleges experiment with alternative solutions, these interviews help shed light on why test-optional policies haven’t been helpful for increasing diversity on college campuses.
Earlier quantitative studies found that the test-optional movement, which has spread to over 1,700 colleges, failed to substantially raise the share of low-income students or students of color. For example, one study published in 2021 found that the share of Black, Latino and Native American students increased by only 1 percentage point at about 100 colleges and universities that adopted the policy between 2005-06 and 2015-16. A separate study of a group of selective liberal arts colleges that adopted test-optional policies before 2011 didn’t find any didn’t find any diversity improvements on those campuses.