The Squeakers of College Admissions

Many students applied to elite universities this year without an SAT or ACT score (photo credit: Bryan Y.W. Shin).

The squeakers are getting the limelight. For those not familiar with college applicants we’ve termed squeakers, they are the students who applied to elite colleges this year sans test scores. These students either didn’t take the SAT or ACT or simply didn’t want to report their scores to institutions that went “test-optional” due to the pandemic. These applicants, who are a central driver of the spike in applications to the vast majority of our nation’s elite universities this year, likely thought that while their test scores might preclude their admission in an ordinary year, they just might have a chance of getting in during a year in which the submission of test scores isn’t mandatory. But were many of these students being naive?

We would argue yes because the vast majority of elite universities — with notable exceptions like Georgetown University — weren’t being candid about their “test-optional” policies. All else being equal, a student with great scores will always have an advantage over a student with no scores. No language on an admissions office’s website could convince us otherwise, particularly as these schools don’t release data on the percentage of students who do and don’t get in with and without test scores. Of course, for the schools that have actually released the data, the trend lines are clear: students with scores have a better shot than do students without scores. At the University of Pennsylvania, about 66% of Early Decision applicants to UPenn’s Class of 2025 submitted test scores. And about 75% of Early Decision applicants who earned admission submitted test scores. At Georgetown University, 7.34% of Early Action applicants to the Class of 2025 who did not submit test scores earned admission. This compares to Georgetown’s 10.8% overall Early Action admit rate for the Class of 2025.

But look past the numbers for a moment. Instead, zero in on what admissions leaders are publicly touting to major press outlets. In a piece out this week up on CNN by Yon Pomrenze and Bianna Golodryga entitled “College applications in pandemic year show deepening inequities in access to higher education,” NYU’s admissions leader offers a most interesting quote. As Pomrenze and Golodryga report, “‘You might find more students applying to an Ivy League or a school like NYU because they feel like they have a chance (now that test scores are optional),’ says MJ Knoll-Finn, senior vice president for Enrollment Management at New York University. NYU saw a 20% spike in applications this year.” It’s worth noting that Ms. Knoll-Finn opines that these applicants “felt like they [had] a chance” but she doesn’t actually say that, well, they did!

Yet Ms. Knoll-Finn is outdone by Cornell’s admissions leader who offered a gem to The New York Times. In a piece entitled “Interest Surges in Top Colleges, While Struggling Ones Scrape for Applicants,” Amelia Nierenberg writes, “Prestigious universities like Cornell never have a hard time attracting students. But this year, the admissions office in Ithaca, N.Y., is swimming in 17,000 more applications than it has ever received before, driven mostly by the school’s decision not to require standardized test scores during the coronavirus pandemic. ‘We saw people that thought ‘I would never get into Cornell’ thinking, ‘Oh, if they’re not looking at a test score, maybe I’ve actually got a chance,’” said Jonathan Burdick, Cornell’s vice provost for enrollment.” Who ever would have given them that crazy idea? Bueller. Bueller.

 
 

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