Admissions Leaders Are Conflicted

We do believe many admissions leaders are sincere when they detail their conflict with “test-optional” admissions policies (photo credit: Derrick Smith).

As longtime readers of our college admissions blog know well, we believe “test-optional” policies are essentially meaningless. These policies, as we’ve asserted over the years from atop our soapbox in admissions, are designed to ease restrictions on applicants and ultimately to encourage them to apply — even if they don’t necessarily have a legitimate chance of admission. And when so many of our nation’s elite universities went “test-optional” this year due to the pandemic and these schools saw major spikes in applications, well, these institutions saw the fruits of their labor. Yet it would be an oversimplification to suggest that admissions officers at our nation’s elite universities are just over the moon over the application surge as a result of abruptly transitioning to “test-optional” after years of requiring SAT or ACT test scores. Yes, they’re over the moon about the application records. And, yes, increased applications and invariably lower admission rates serve the interest of their respective institutions. But it’s not like they don’t have conflicting feelings about the change.

Dartmouth’s Admissions Leader Raises Moral Question About “Test-Optional” Admissions Policies

As Melissa Korn and Douglas Belkin report for The Wall Street Journal in an excellent piece entitled “College Admission Season Is Crazier Than Ever. That Could Change Who Gets In.,” “The pandemic ‘is calling on us to walk the talk,’ when it comes to thinking more broadly about assessing applicants, said Lee Coffin, vice provost for enrollment and dean of admissions and financial aid at Dartmouth College. Dartmouth saw a 33% rise in applications after it waived standardized test scores this year. Mr. Coffin says he is conflicted about going test-optional. Before the pandemic Dartmouth considered standardized test scores to be among the most important information alongside grade point average, essays and class rank. Seeing strong scores helps his team feel more confident that admitted students could cut it at the Ivy League institution. ‘It becomes a moral question,’ he said. ‘I don’t want to admit someone who is going to struggle.'”

We Believe Admissions Leaders, While Sincere, Will Always Err On the Side of Increasing Applications

We appreciate the words of Lee Coffin and we believe he’s being sincere. It seems he really is struggling with the “test-optional” moral conundrum. On the one hand, he likes the increased interest in Dartmouth. He likes seeing applications surge by 33%. A big part of his job is inspiring students from across America and around the world to apply to the College on the Hill. Yet he also recognizes that a big reason why the school has received so many more applications this year than in years past is due to the school’s new “test-optional” policy. And we do appreciate his sentiment, though we would argue it’s a whole lot harder getting into an elite institution than graduating from an elite institution (see Harvard grade inflation). So while admissions leaders like Mr. Coffin may indeed be conflicted, ultimately, they’re always going to err on the side of making decisions that lead to application increases and lower admission rates.


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  • Barry Branholt says:

    Conflicted?! You hit the nail on the head right there! I wish you would send out an APB to these schools. Lee Coffin said it all when he said “I don’t want to admit someone who will struggle…” They will be. Maybe you know this already, but one Ivy has gone ‘test-free’ for some applicants, meaning they STATE they will not consider tests scores at all- even if they are submitted (do you believe this? I am not sure I do). The problem with this, if they are indeed ‘test-free’ is this: This specific Ivy has a program which is math-heavy. So if you have a student who got a 22 on the Math portion of the ACT but tutored up to get a B+ on his math in high school, the Ivy will never find out until it’s to late. Come second semester of his first year, the student begins failing his courses. Then what do you do? Have a high attrition rate? Tell the teachers to dumb-down their courses to the detriment of the smart kids? Give them double time on tests? This is a conundrum the Ivies are getting into and it is terrible. It will not end well, because the Ivy brand will ultimately be tarnished badly. Give it another decade and the Ivies will lose their luster- big time!

  • Harvey Bernays says:

    Lesson #1: Once the Ivies rid themselves of tests, they are ridding themselves of the very component that have made them elite in the first place.

    It is like telling a race car driver that even though he is the champion and has been for 5 years straight, from now on he will race with a car with only 75% of the power of his competitors for the purpose of ‘equity’. Watch his sponsors flee- and fast. Give this dumb social experiment a few years to marinate and watch all the high achieving kids send their apps elsewhere. And if the whole country is ridding themselves of tests? Well, for that answer, go back to lesson #1.

    And once you lose your reputation, Ivy League, it is very hard to get it back- and it is almost never the same again. I am a Harvard grad and I lament what it being done at all these schools, because it seems we are embarking upon an eventuality that predates the pandemic.

  • H Bernays says:

    I would also add that the WSJ article highlights a student who seems smart and serious but does not disclose her tests scores- only admitting they would not even be in Stanford’s (or any of the other top schools she applied to) bottom 25% of admits. Let’s say she ‘squeaks’ into Stanford or Harvard and get’s a job in the STEM field. And let’s say she struggles but graduates and gets a job at a Fortune 500. Well, big corps expect these graduates to be quick and adept at math and so on. What if she is not? You think a Fortune 500 won’t take notice? Multiply this example by a few thousand and what do you think will happen? Employers will start to disappear. This is a slippery slope. Melissa Korn also writes that schools can ignore test scores and go on past history with schools they know and guess a student’s scores, even if they never took a test. Well when you start to drop testing requirements, a LOT more schools you never heard of are going to start showing up to your office (Much like the border crisis because Biden told Central America you are welcome in!). Anyway, the Ivies will not have any history with these new schools- and they are pushing for ‘rural’ schools now too. Doubt kids in bumfuk Kansas have ever applied before. But now they will- and no test scores! What to do, Harvard?

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