Revenues may lurk behind drive to end US admissions tests

Universities aim to boost bottom line by jettisoning SAT and ACT to gain freer hand in selecting entrants, some suggest

February 2, 2020
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Experts have warned that a push by US universities to end their reliance on standardised admissions tests may be gaining momentum for a little-acknowledged reason: its potential for driving up tuition fee revenue.

With the University of California system understood to be on the verge of joining the movement, the companies that prepare the tests are trying to stave off what would be an immense loss by warning that minority university applicants would be deprived of a crucial tool for proving their academic worth objectively.

Universities have been countering that argument by saying that academic studies and their own experiences have shown that high school grade-point averages are fairer and stronger predictors of college completion than the exams.

But the bigger issue, some analysts have concluded, is that selective institutions have become expert at structuring the composition of their admissions in such a way as to maximise revenues, and that eliminating testing requirements will give them even more freedom to do so.

In many cases, said Anthony Carnevale, a research professor of public policy at Georgetown University, colleges that have eliminated mandatory standardised admissions tests have not significantly increased their enrolments of low-income or minority students.

“They’ve simply allowed them to let in more students, whose parents have money, with lower test scores,” said Professor Carnevale, who is also director of Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

A 2018 compilation of various studies of test-optional policies noted similar concern over whether they do more to boost a selective institution’s image than its diversity. The summary, in a book titled Measuring Success, cited evidence that institutions at which exams were optional tended to focus their recruitment efforts on “more cost-effective or fruitful locales” rather than areas where low-income and minority students could be found.

Across US higher education, there is intense interest in the imminent decision by the California system, especially among the makers of the SAT and the ACT, the main standardised admissions tests. The California system calls itself the single-largest generator of customers for the College Board, which owns the SAT.

Among California system leaders, public debate about dispensing with the exams has focused on their potential effects on minority and low-income enrolment. The long-standing concern is whether an individual’s success on the SAT or the ACT is largely a proxy for family wealth.

Last year, the College Board made a widely ridiculed attempt to confront that when it proposed adding to its test results an “adversity score” that would quantify the social disadvantage facing each applicant.

Professor Carnevale previously worked for the Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT for the College Board, and he gave it credit for continually adapting the exam to reduce biases attributable to racial and economic variations among applicants. Such measures have included dropping the scores attached to questions when a clear demographic variation in responses is apparent, he said.

But questions of bias in the tests have been overshadowed in the public debate by the realities of what colleges themselves do with the exam results, Professor Carnevale said. Institutions are constantly seeking ways to make admissions decisions that will bring them more revenue, and eliminating the SAT and the ACT will enhance their power to do that, he added.

“Admissions directors are running a business – you have to remember that,” Professor Carnevale said. With the number of US high school graduates set to decline in the years ahead, “colleges are going to be running around looking for people with parents who can pay full boat…[They] don’t want the SAT to get in the way of that.”

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