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A year ago the University of Chicago became the most prominent and selective national university to join the burgeoning test-optional movement. According to the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, better known as FairTest, Chicago is one of 41 colleges and universities that have adopted test-optional policies during the past year. FairTest’s website includes a database of more than 1,000 four-year colleges that are test optional for at least some applicants.

While Chicago’s adoption of test-optional admission attracted national attention, it was just one of a number of new initiatives launched as part of the UChicago Empower program designed to increase access to students from underrepresented backgrounds. The university also offered full scholarships to students from families earning less than $125,000 per year; instituted new scholarships for first-generation students, veterans and children of first responders; and increased recruitment activities to rural and inner-city students.

Two weeks ago Chicago issued a news release declaring the program a success, although, as pointed out by Inside Higher Ed, without a lot of detail. The university increased enrollment of first-gen and low-income students by 20 percent and rural students by 56 percent, and it enrolled 14 veterans after having none the previous year. It accomplished this while lowering its admit rate to 6 percent and raising its average SAT score.

A regular reader of this column asked last week if Chicago’s declaration of success will lead other selective colleges and universities to go test optional. There has certainly been speculation since Chicago’s announcement last summer that other prominent universities might get on the bandwagon to lessen the hold that standardized tests have on college admissions, but to date none of the other elites have followed Chicago’s example.

That raises several questions. Will other selective national universities make the move to test optional based on Chicago’s announcement of victory? Does Chicago want to lead a movement or have its test-optional policy be a point of differentiation? And while we’re on the subject, would we ever see an article or announcement reporting that a college’s move to test optional or some other initiative had been a failure or fallen short of expectations?

The University of Chicago and its dean of admissions and financial aid, Jim Nondorf, deserve a lot of credit for their willingness to go test optional and even more credit for recognizing that increasing access requires an institutional commitment to be affordable to underrepresented populations. I’m impressed that an urban university is making an effort to market itself to students from rural areas through its new Emerging Rural Leaders Program.

There are two claims found in coverage of the Chicago success announcement that I think are worth examining more closely.

A Chronicle of Higher Education article stated that “It’s safe to say that nixing its testing requirement helped Chicago attract even more applicants.” But is that the case? In an email Nondorf told me that it is hard to know whether the testing change alone generated applications but that he was confident that the full set of UChicago Empower enhancements inspired students to apply who wouldn’t have otherwise considered Chicago.

Chicago experienced an application increase of approximately 7 percent, or close to 2,500 more applications than in 2018. There is certainly nothing exceptional about an institution of Chicago’s caliber seeing a 7 percent increase in applications from year to year. I haven’t seen research that indicates what kind of impact going test optional has had on other institutions’ application numbers, but there is nothing in Chicago’s experience this year that suggests a test-optional application surge.

The Chronicle also quoted Nondorf as saying, “We send signals with our policies.” I think that’s a more interesting claim. To what degree do an institution’s application policies and procedures impact student perceptions of the institution? And should the questions on an application serve a marketing function as well as a data-collection function?

A number of years ago, a public university in Virginia announced that it was adding an essay to its application. An admissions officer at the university admitted that they had no plans to actually read the essays, but they thought that having an essay looked more prestigious. I found that troubling and outrageous. More recently, in 2012 the University of Iowa became the first public university to add an optional question to its application asking if students identify with the LGBTQ community. I argued at the time that colleges should ask only those application questions relevant to admission but appreciated Iowa’s desire to communicate its support and welcome to LGBTQ students.

So what signals does going test optional send? In my experience most students are strategic thinkers, drawn to a policy if it improves their chances for admission. Ten to 15 percent of Chicago’s applicants didn’t submit scores. But what would happen if there were more high-end test-optional colleges? Would students be as drawn to testing if fewer places required the SAT and ACT? If students didn’t have to take admission tests, would they still do so, and what would happen to the American economy if the College Board and the test-prep industry were no longer as profitable?

The Inside Higher Ed coverage of Chicago’s “report card” included this sentence: “As a result of the changes, Chicago was able to admit lots of students it couldn’t admit before.” I find that statement intriguing. Why is that?

Obviously if the changes generated applications from outstanding students who wouldn’t otherwise have considered Chicago, then Chicago was able to admit students it couldn’t admit before. But is there more to it than that?

Did going test optional allow Chicago to select and admit differently? There is certainly a suspicion that other colleges have gone the test-optional route less for philosophical reasons and more for profile protection reasons. Being test optional allows a college or university to achieve various institutional goals (athletics, diversity, development) without taking a hit to its test score profile.

Is testing more or less important in an admissions environment where fewer than one in 10 applicants are admitted? On the one hand, an admissions staff is making fine distinctions among highly qualified applicants, meaning that every additional piece of data is useful. On the other hand, an admit rate like Chicago’s 6 percent can immunize an institution from criticism of an individual holistic decision.

That raises the classic question of whether college admission is purely about institutional interest or about the public interest as well. Does a college or university, particularly one that is private, have a right to admit whomever it wants from its applicant pool? Or does the moral contract between college and applicant require equity and fairness, such that every applicant receives equal consideration in the admissions process? I am aware that’s an ideal much easier to identify than to achieve, but it’s relevant in the Chicago case. Has test optional allowed Chicago to admit applicants it couldn’t before, or has test optional allowed Chicago to defend its decisions more easily?

The most interesting and promising of the changes the University of Chicago made to its admission procedures is not becoming test optional, but rather giving applicants the option of submitting a two-minute video introduction. That’s not a new idea, as Robert Sternberg introduced something similar at Tufts a decade ago. Today’s generation of students has grown up in a YouTube world, and many of them can better provide insight into who they are and what they value in a video than with the classic application essay. I hope that’s a trend that will catch on.

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