When Non-Submitters Are the Norm

At Pitzer College, unlike most institutions that have gone SAT-optional, most applicants have stopped sending their test scores.

May 22, 2012

When colleges and universities opt to stop requiring that applicants submit the SAT or ACT, many report a surge in interest. But the norm has been that the vast majority of applicants (frequently three-quarters or more) continue to submit scores. The competitive college until now known to have an admissions process in which test scores truly play no role is Sarah Lawrence College, which as a matter of policy won't look at scores if they are submitted -- so applicants there have no dilemma on whether to submit. (UPDATE: As noted in a comment below, Sarah Lawrence is changing its policy, and going to a more traditional test-optional policy in which it will accept scores, starting this fall.)

But in what may be a first, a competitive liberal arts institution (Pitzer College) reports that for the last five years a solid majority of its applicants have not been submitting test scores. While many colleges have reported that their non-submitters are retained or graduate at levels at (or better than) those who submit test scores, Pitzer is the first to be able to say so when that is the norm, and when the SAT averages of those who do submit would be gratifying to many institutions (660 verbal and 651 mathematics).

This year (in proportions that have been roughly the same for the last five years), 4,227 applicants sought one of the 253 spots in Pitzer's first-year class. Just over 63 percent applied without testing, and more than 72 percent of those admitted never submitted test scores. Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, which encourages college to drop testing requirements, said he didn't know of another competitive, test-optional college with percentages that were close.

Angel B. Perez, vice president and dean of admission and financial aid at Pitzer, said he had never heard of a similar situation either. Perez isn't certain how the pattern evolved at Pitzer, but he's pleased with the outcome.

Asked about the significance of the development, Perez said that when SAT scores aren't submitted by a majority of applicants, they simply become less important. "I can't remember talking about an SAT score in admissions committee this year. It's not a point of discussion for us," he said. "Even for students who submit, we'll take a look at it, but we never use it as a predictor of success."

One bit of conventional wisdom about SAT-optional policies is that they attract more minority applicants. Pitzer has been experiencing steady growth in minority enrollments (up to 34 percent now). And Perez said that he thinks the policy encourages applicants -- many of them minority or from low-income families or from families without a history of going to college -- who might be scared off otherwise. "Many of those students, students who can succeed here, have a fear of applying to highly selective institutions, and they look at our admit rate, and they think, 'There is no way I'm going to get in.' "

Going test-optional, Perez said, seems to reassure such applicants that they won't be put in some box, but will be evaluated in a broad way.

But what Perez said he has noticed of late is that, when he asks students about whether they submitted scores, many of those who boast of not submitting in fact earned very good scores. "I think we're getting more students whose SAT scores are phenomenally strong, but who don't submit for philosophical reasons. I meet students who say that they got 750s across the board but say, 'That's not the way I want to be represented.'"

Rio Bauce, who just graduated from Pitzer, said that his SAT scores were much higher than the averages that the college reported in the years before he applied. Most experts advise such applicants to submit their scores. But he said he didn't want to. "I just felt that my coursework spoke more to me as an applicant. I just feel better about getting in that way."

Perez said that when he hears comments like this, "I smile and think that they applied to the right place." In fact, he said that as many students rebel against a testing culture that many fear is omnipresent in elementary and secondary education, Pitzer and other colleges might offer "a niche" as places that do not value testing.

So why not follow the path of Sarah Lawrence and simply stop accepting test reports? Perez said that it's about respecting the values of applicants who are proud of their test scores. "We don't want to intimidate those students who feel they have worked very hard, and they come from a high school where a testing culture is predominant," he said. "We don't want them to feel penalized."

Pitzer could be penalized in U.S. News & World Report rankings. For colleges where two-thirds of applicants do not submit SAT or ACT scores, the weighted average is multiplied by 0.9, effectively lowering (modestly) one part of the magazine's rankings formula.

Kathleen Fineout Steinberg, executive director for communications of the College Board, which runs the SAT program, said that her organization believes a higher proportion of freshmen are submitting SAT scores at Pitzer than the college says. (The College Board says that 42 percent of Pitzer applicants submitted SAT scores, but that would still leave a majority not doing so.)

"The College Board respects the right of colleges and universities to set their own admission policies," she said via e-mail. "As an organization, we support and promote a holistic approach to college admission, because we believe it is important to look at a number of factors – including strength of high school curriculum, rigor of coursework completed, GPA, and SAT scores – when assessing a student’s likelihood for academic success at a particular college or university.... Given the ever-increasing number of students aspiring to higher education and the increasing complexity of the admission process, we believe students and admission officers will continue to rely on the SAT as a valid and reliable indicator of college readiness."      

At Pitzer, Perez said, a de-emphasis on the SAT has strong faculty support. When the college went test-optional a decade ago, he said, it was something of a compromise in that some professors wanted to go to a Sarah Lawrence approach and refuse to look at scores. (For the first five years of the policy, Pitzer's applicant pool was similar to other test-optional colleges in that a majority of applicants continued to submit.)

Halford Fairchild, professor of psychology and Africana studies at Pitzer, was the leader of the faculty effort to reconsider the role of testing in admissions. He said he's pleased that most applicants are not longer sending in test scores -- and that they feel comfortable doing so.

Fairchild said that relatively small proportions of black and Latino students score at the average levels seen by those admitted to top colleges. At the same time, he said, Pitzer and many other colleges report that black and Latino students with lower than average scores succeed academically at these colleges. That raises questions about the reliability of the tests, and the message they send to students.

"I think places that require the SAT are sending a message to two-thirds of African-American high school applicants, which is, 'Don't bother to apply,' " he said. "I'll continue to push for us to drop it altogether."


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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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