It's doesn't attract that much attention these days when a liberal arts college drops the SAT as an admissions requirement -- as Smith College did this month -- because so many liberal arts colleges are doing so.
But a major impediment facing the anti-SAT movement is the widely held perception that doing away with a standardized test requirement is something only a liberal arts college can pull off. Universities that recruit nationally are just too big and have too many applicants, the conventional wisdom goes, to give applications the sort of individual attention that would be needed to drop the SAT. As a result, applicants consulting various "best college" lists have no trouble these days if they want to apply to highly rated liberal arts colleges without submitting SAT scores, but they don't have similar options if they want to apply to universities.
Today, however, Wake Forest University is ending its SAT requirement for applicants. While Wake's decision isn't going to have the impact of such a move from a Harvard or Stanford, it is notable. Wake is No. 30 on the U.S. News & World Report list of top national universities and however much most educators may dispute the meaning of that list, it is influential with many prospective students, and this marks the first time that an institution that high on the list for universities has ever dropped its standardized testing requirement.
Robert Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing, said it was "very significant" to have a university of this type joining the growing number of colleges dropping the SAT requirement. Beyond showing that such a move is possible at a larger institution, Wake Forest will also draw more attention to the option in the Southeast, where there has been less movement away from the SAT than in the Northeast. "There are now [SAT]-optional schools of every type in every region of the country," Schaeffer said.
More students appear to be seeking out such colleges, he said. FairTest maintains a list of the 750 bachelor's institutions that don't require the SAT and Schaeffer said that the number of unique visitors to the site is going up by 30 percent a year, hitting a current annual total of 125,000.
Like most colleges that have dropped the SAT as a requirement, Wake will allow applicants to submit scores if they want, and will ask all accepted applicants who have taken the SAT to submit scores so that the university can study the impact of the policy and the success levels of those who didn't submit scores for consideration in the admissions process.
Jill Tiefenthaler, the new provost at Wake Forest, said that she has been interested in the growing debate about the SAT and that she reviewed the research on the test with the university's admissions professionals and found that the SAT "is not a great predictor of college success," and appears to discourage applications for black and Latino applicants, who see the test as biased.
Although Wake Forest receives 9,000-plus applications a year, Tiefenthaler said that there is a strong commitment to personal attention for each application. In addition, she said that the university believes it isn't diverse enough (minority students make up around 16 percent of undergraduates) and wants to find ways to get that percentage up.
Given how little value officials believe the SAT provides, Tiefenthaler said it made sense to end the requirement. The size of the admissions office is going up by about 20 percent, she said, to enable enhanced recruiting while still providing for careful reviews of applications. The university also hopes to use the added people to encourage more applicants to have interviews as part of the process. Currently only about 10 percent do so, and Tiefenthaler said she would prefer to see many more doing so. (Liberal arts colleges that have dropped the SAT have generally experienced a surge in applications, especially from minority students.)
For those unable to visit Winston-Salem, the university plans to start offering virtual interviews.
Many colleges that have dropped the SAT requirement (or made other changes in admissions strategies) have relied on admissions consultants. One unusual factor in Wake Forest's decision-making process is that many of those involved read and discussed the implications of a scholarly book by one of the university's faculty members. The Power of Privilege: Yale and America's Elite College (2007, Stanford University Press) is by Joseph A. Soares, a Wake Forest sociologist who has done extensive work on issues related to social class and higher education.
In the book, Soares argues that the shifts at Yale and elsewhere in the '60s -- widely portrayed as replacing an aristocracy with a meritocracy at elite colleges -- were far less dramatic and far less threatening to elite socioeconomic groups than such colleges would have you believe. And the book argues that the SAT -- proclaimed by the College Board and colleges that support it to be a tool for allowing talent in -- has actually been used consistently to keep some groups out. Soares cites documentary evidence, for instance, to show how the colleges that backed the creation and spread of the SAT pushed it with the explicit aim of having a “scientific” justification for limiting the enrollment of Jewish students.
While the SAT and higher education have changed since then, the Soares book drives home the point that the use (or abandonment) of various tests tends to have specific impacts on specific groups of potential applicants. In an interview, Soares said that he has been pleased to discuss his book with the provost, admissions dean, financial aid dean and others at the university and that he's been in regular e-mail communication with them and others as the discussions about dropping the SAT as a requirement have picked up pace.
"Everybody has been very keen on making sure SAT scores were not preventing us from getting more diverse," he said. And the issues that had the most influence appeared to be the lack of evidence that the SAT was helping in admissions decisions and considerable evidence of the correlation between higher family income and higher SAT scores.
"The issue became, 'why do we keep the SAT?'" Soares said, and to the extent that the only answer appeared to be that it was the norm among elite universities, his view (shared by administrators) was "that's an unworthy motive."
Soares said he's been thrilled to be part of the discussion, and hopes that other universities will follow Wake Forest's lead.
Not surprisingly, the College Board thinks otherwise.
Alana Klein, a spokeswoman for the College Board, said that most competitive colleges continue to use the SAT. "The schools that tend to go SAT-optional are vocational schools and those that accept 100 percent of their applicant pool. The few smaller liberal arts colleges that have gone SAT-optional tend to have a very holistic and individualized approach to admissions. Because they have a smaller applicant pool, they can get to know each applicant well," she said.
As for the claims that the SAT adds little if anything to admissions decisions, Klein said that the best way to predict college success is to use the SAT and high school grades in college preparatory courses. With "rampant grade inflation," she added, the SAT is "a very important measure."
First Year Success at WPI
Last year's announcement of a "first" for dropping the SAT requirement was by Worcester Polytechnic University, which was the first competitive science institute to make such a shift. WPI, like some other colleges that have stopped making the SAT a requirement, didn't do so in a blanket way. Rather, the institute required those who wished to skip the SAT to instead submit examples of academic or extracurricular work that shows their skills in organization, creativity or problem solving. Examples include written descriptions of science projects, robotics design concepts, research papers, Eagle Scout projects, entrepreneurial projects, or actual inventions. WPI has been working to attract more female and minority students, and officials saw dropping the SAT as a way to do so.
The first class was admitted under the new system this spring, and Kristin R. Tichenor, vice president for enrollment management, said that she has just finished an analysis of the class, showing numerous positive trends. As other colleges dropping SAT requirements have reported, relatively few applicants took advantage of the offer. Out of more than 5,400 applications, only about 150 applied without having test scores considered. But as other colleges have reported, the changes associated with dropping the SAT appear to extend beyond those who use the option. Many admissions experts have said that some applicants, particularly from underrepresented groups or whose scores aren't in the stratosphere, view such policies as a symbolic welcoming gesture -- regardless of whether they use them.
Tichenor said that many applicants who sent in scores also sent in the materials that were suggested for those wanting to skip the SAT. "They clearly wanted to hedge their bets and pursue both courses of action," she said. "My hypothesis is that the students -- especially those typically underrepresented at places like WPI -- were delighted to hear that we placed value on the more qualitative aspects of their experiences and achievements, rather than focusing exclusively on the quantitative credentials," she said.
The results for WPI:
- Total applications stayed relatively constant, but minority applications were up 30 percent.
- Significant jumps in yield rates (percentage of accepted applicants who send deposits to enroll) from women (29 percent, up from 22 percent), underrepresented minority students (30 percent, up from 20 percent) and students outside of New England (22 percent, up from 14 percent).
- After aiming for a class of 810, WPI has 959 deposits from students for the next freshman class.
Some defenders of the SAT suggest that colleges that end it as a requirement will see drops in other measures of academic quality. But Tichenor said that the high school grade-point average of new students has climbed to 3.76, a record for the institute and up from 3.66 the year before.