Whitworth University went test optional before it was cool.
In 2007, the private Christian university in Spokane was among the first in the region to give prospective students the option of applying without providing their SAT or ACT scores for consideration. In announcing the move, university officials said they felt the tests favor wealthier students who can afford test-prep materials, while pointing to other indicators — such as high school GPA — as stronger predictors of college success.
Fred Pfursich, Whitworth’s dean of enrollment at the time, predicted 15-20% of applicants would apply without test scores. Last year, approximately 14.7% of Whitworth’s freshmen applications, or 565, were scoreless. In 2019, 426 of the 3,486 students admitted to Whitworth (12.2%) applied without an SAT or ACT.
Though Greg Orwig, Whitworth’s vice president of admissions and financial aid, said the number has steadily increased since the policy took effect, this year saw applications without an SAT/ACT spike given the frequent closure of standardized testing centers nationwide during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a result, 2,679 of 3,888 freshman applications to attend Whitworth this fall — approximately 69% — were submitted without scores.
“By the time test dates started returning, most schools had announced being test optional so there was little incentive for students to take the test at that point,” Orwig said.
Now, more than 1,400 accredited colleges and universities will have test optional policies by fall 2022, representing more than 60% of undergraduate institutions across the country, according to FairTest, a testing industry watchdog group.
That includes all of Washington’s public four-year universities — permanently, university leaders announced last month.
Like Whitworth, many public and private institutions across Eastern Washington received thousands of freshman applications this year without SAT or ACT scores. When it comes to tracking admissions data, some schools tally applications differently than others: Eastern Washington University and Whitworth tally applications that are complete and actionable, while the University of Washington and Gonzaga University count all received applications even if they were not completed by the applicants.
As of June 3, 3,528 of 4,217 fall 2021 applications to EWU, approximately 83.7%, were submitted without SAT or ACT scores. That’s up from the 417, or 9.3%, for last fall; the university temporarily waived the SAT/ACT requirement in light of COVID-19 before becoming permanently test optional in May 2020.
The UW, meanwhile, reported 29,021 freshman applications (approximately 59.4%) were submitted without SAT or ACT scores for the upcoming year, up from 2,861 (6.5%) last fall.
On the private side, 6,115 freshman applications tallied by Gonzaga (approximately 69.2%) were submitted this year without an SAT or ACT. Total freshman applications to the private Catholic university were up by approximately 450 over last year as of May, marking Gonzaga’s second-highest total in the last five years.
Erin Hays, Gonzaga’s director of undergraduate admission, said some of the increase was predictable based on other colleges that have gone test optional, as students may feel a school is more accessible.
That said, Hays believes a side effect of the pandemic — which interrupted many traditional college prep rituals, such as in-person campus visits and college fairs — is students applying to more colleges than they might in a typical year.
“So much was different that (students) were nervous,” Hays said. “The combination of not knowing what they were looking for and being frightened with the process caused them to apply to more schools to just be safer and make sure they had a school to go to.”
Count Tammy Nguyen among those nervous heading into application season.
The Rogers High School grad felt working with guidance counselors would have been better in person rather than online due to the pandemic. Struggles with the SAT compounded her concerns; Nguyen took the test in her junior year a few months before COVID-19 hit, saying she didn’t get much sleep the night before.
Nguyen said she scored a 990; the average SAT score in 2020 was 1051, according to the College Board, the administrator of the test. While she was planning to retake, students found out that schools were waiving their test requirements given the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was kind of hopeful because there was no way I was going to get into the college that I wanted with that score,” she said.
Her top choice was UW, her brother’s alma mater, a change of scenery from her hometown Spokane. Nguyen felt her grades were competitive, but not “super good,” while she did not participate in sports or have any volunteer hours.
“We got on the College Board (website) to look at the schools, and there’s like reach schools … and schools they don’t think you can get into because of your SAT scores,” Nguyen said. “On College Board, it literally said UW would be very hard to get into with my SAT score.”
Nguyen stayed local with her fallbacks: EWU, Whitworth and Washington State University. She did not submit her SAT score with any of her applications.
“Honestly, I didn’t think I was going to get into UW,” Nguyen said.
‘Hard to define’
UW tallied record numbers of overall and state residential applications this year, said Director of Admissions Paul Seegert.
The university received 48,826 freshman applications, up approximately 11.5% from 2020 and 6.3% more than the previous high set ahead of the 2018 fall quarter. For context, UW’s acceptance rate this year is 53%, Seegert said.
Given the pandemic, Seegert said he is unsure college officials will ever disentangle the reasons why people applied the way they did, whether it’s the loosened standardized testing requirements or otherwise.
Though he acknowledged “it’s difficult to know in any given year why students are doing what they’re doing,” Seegert said he has observed a nationwide trend.
“There seems to have been fewer students applying to colleges overall but there’s a disproportionately high number of students that were applying to well-known and more selective public flagship and private universities,” he said. “There’s a shift, which didn’t just happen only in the state of Washington.”
Applications to Ivy League schools have soared this year, according to Bloomberg. Harvard University received more than 57,000 undergraduate applications, a record high, while applications were also up over last year at Yale and Princeton universities.
The college search process appeared relatively unchanged for affluent families who had no issues letting their children look far afield for their perfect school, said Jeff McLaughlin, executive vice president of enrollment data at Fire Engine RED, a college consulting firm.
Meanwhile, trends showed students on average looked closer to home due to health and/or economic concerns, McLaughlin said, while numbers of low-income students decided to take time off and not apply.
“So this was not the year to apply to the University of Washington if you haven’t applied to the University of Washington before because mostly everybody in those high schools is applying to the University of Washington,” said Tim Lyon, senior vice president of the Boston-based college consulting firm Maguire Associates, “but it might’ve been the year to take your shot at your Stanford or your (University of Southern California) or maybe even a Gonzaga.”
Lyon said he believes test optional hasn’t brought in more students applying to colleges, but rather opened the door for them to apply to more schools.
“If students are applying really heavily to highly brand-visible institutions — so the UCLAs of the world or UC Berkleys — in those cases, those institutions still don’t have capacity for students,” said Jens Larson, associate vice president for enrollment management at EWU. “You see a lot of highly selective or rejective institutions increasing their application pools at the expense of not just public institutions, but particularly regional private institutions as well.”
Larson said EWU is expecting approximately 7% fewer applications overall than last year. That won’t be finalized for another few months; the university accepts applications through August.
EWU received 4,217 freshman applications as of June 3, down approximately 6% from last year. Larson said mid- to low-income families are looking for more certainty with their employment and perhaps even the K-12 system amid the pandemic, potentially stalling their college plans as a result.
The number of undergraduate applications at WSU is also down, said Saichi Oba, WSU’s vice provost for enrollment management.
“You typically don’t see that at a school that has been showing increases over the last several years,” he said. “It’s an event that’s hard to define, but I’m pretty confident putting most of that blame on the disruptions caused by COVID-19.”
‘Taking advantage of the access’
WSU, which declined to release specific statistics to date, will be “test blind” starting with applications for fall 2022, meaning the university will no longer use SAT and ACT scores when reviewing student applications.
Institutions that have gone test blind or tests optional are leaning more into what many colleges have described as a more holistic approach, with high school GPA, strength of curriculum and grade trends front and center.
“We get that question from counselors all the time: Do you use it? Do you look at it?” said Jana Jaraysi, EWU’s director of recruitment. “We do. It’s just part of the whole process that not one piece is really going to be the defining factor to making a decision. Each piece is critical to making that decision.”
At UW, for example, test scores are not considered when the applications are initially reviewed, Seegert said. He said only at the end of the process, when administrators are making decisions at the cutoff line of “who can get admitted and who won’t,” do they consider “standout scores.” In SAT terms, Seegert loosely defined a standout score as around 1450 or above.
That level of review was applied to less than 200 out of the 48,826 applications received this year, he said.
While this year was unique given the closure of test centers, the number of applications submitted by first-generation college students to UW is up 7.7% over last year. Likewise, approximately 18.4% more women applied to UW than in 2020, while applications sent by students from underrepresented racial/ethnic backgrounds is up 21%.
“We did it because we thought it was the right thing to do for the admissions process,” Seegert said on UW’s test optional policy. “When I look at this class, it’s larger, but it proportionately looks very similar to previous classes in terms of first-generation, low-income, the academic profile.”
With a decreased number of overall applications to date, EWU’s figures for those categories are lower than last year.
Whitworth’s figures are mostly flat compared to 2020, as the percentage change for applications submitted by women, first-generation college students and students from underrepresented racial or ethnic backgrounds each deviated by no more than approximately 2.5%. Whitworth received just 47 more freshman applications this year.
Gonzaga, meanwhile, reviewed more applications from women (approximately 5% more than last year) and minority students (7%).
“If what we’re seeing as a result of test optional is a trend of more students feeling like college is available to them, accessible and a greater likeliness of students going to college as their dream and interest, then what a wonderful thing,” Hays said. “I’m just really excited we’re in a place of students being hopeful about those opportunities and really taking advantage of the access.”