Admissions to Universities

Admissions to Universities

On average - four per week.

That’s the number of universities in the United States that are no longer requiring standardized tests to apply.

A trend that many had discussed for years began in earnest in 2015 and by now over one quarter (!) of the 3,000 degree-granting colleges in the U.S. do not require students to take a standardized test to apply.

The point is not that 100% of schools will remove the requirement (though I do believe 95% will) but that the change itself is happening. This change creates opportunity. There will be major effects on the admissions consulting, test prep, and overseas study preparation markets. It also will affect our work at LearningLeaders - I believe for the positive in a big way.

[Note: I’m also trying to figure out for myself where I stand in the high stakes testing debate. I haven’t dug deep enough into the research to make an informed decision. I merely am seeing what the colleges and universities are doing and responding to that.]

A key critique of this move for colleges is that 'it all comes down to competitive advantage.' A reasonable argument is, “Podunk University is never going to compete with Harvard, so they remove the SAT requirement to compete for students.” And many universities admit this is a core reason, along with a more altruistic one of ‘open access.'

I buy that argument. And let’s play it to it’s logical conclusion. In the first scenario, Podunk U begins receiving applicants who are below Harvard’s threshold for admission anyways. Nothing changes. I believe it’s unlikely this is the case. Why? Because there are countless students that would be phenomenal assets to any college campus who simply can’t afford to take a standardized test and file a dozen application fees. It’s more likely to me that scenario two occurs.

In this scenario, great applicants prefer Podunk University not because of it’s name or reputation, but because they can get in without SAT scores.

They begin to apply to Podunk and Harvard notices - Harvard then needs to remove their SAT requirement so that they can get the same great applicants who apply to Podunk U. While the absolute number of these applicants who would thrive at both places may be small, Harvard has a greater reputation issue than Podunk. (Harvard absolutely cares about international applicants, but the major decisions the university makes are almost assuredly with U.S. students in mind.) Harvard has to remove the SAT requirement or admit that they are not the most open university application process to all Americans. It’s a classic Prisoners’ Dilemma.

In both schools’ cases, it behooves them to make it easier to apply. Why? Because at face value they can advertise how egalitarian they are and how they recruit the best students, no matter the background. That may be part of it. Another part of it, the dark side of the decision, is that the more students who apply, the more the admission rate decreases, which makes a school appear more selective and thus more prestigious and thus providing a higher quality education.

I can’t see a world in 5-10 years where Harvard still keeps the SAT. In my opinion, the most likely scenario is that they keep it as an optional component to give both the hyper intelligent and the more wealthy a slight leg up in the admissions process. It’s ironically a win-win for them: the candidates they want to get in (daughters and sons of alumni, athletes, etc.) can take the test and Harvard can use that as a justification to help them get in. The majority of people won’t take the test, thereby providing a smaller comparison group for the ‘preferred’ applicants anyways.

Unless you are going to score in the top 10% of the SAT/ACT, there now is only a tiny incentive to actually take the time and effort and money to prepare effectively. What are the impacts for us?

In the future, parents and students have a greater share of time and wallet that they were previously spending on test preparation classes which can now be re-allocated. More significant, I believe, is the mind shift (though it will likely take 5-10 years) away from the results/driven obsession that currently exists. It’s true that parents of the current generation of students themselves took the GaoKao and thus needed to prove themselves in such a capacity - thus its only natural that they hope their daughters and sons share a similar ability in high stakes testing.

Assuming that ‘technology’ is a set of tools to complete a set of actions more efficiently, the introduction of new technology often faces barriers because the users of the current technology simply like the way it’s going now.

It’s actually not too different with public speaking and debate.

There are certainly deeply-rooted cultural reasons to value tests: the Confucian Civil Service exam is noted in Chinese history as a meritocratic system that anyone could pass, so long as they studied. It’s not too dissimilar from the GaoKao today - anyone can get into a great school. “The opportunity is there. If you don’t study hard and take advantage of it, it’s your responsibility,” You might hear. I believe fundamentally Chinese parents are practical. Up until now, test scores have been a practical way to position your daughter/son to get into a great school. Moving forward, it will be less practical. I don’t know how much of this extra time and wallet share will flow into debate and public speaking versus coding classes versus learning guitar versus playing badminton. Though I do know that the trend is in our favor, broadly speaking.

The magnitude of the shift is unknown, but the direction is clear