Dartmouth Reinstates SAT/ACT Requirement
This week, Dartmouth College announced that it will require applicants to submit standardized test scores. The test-mandatory policy will be put into practice for next year’s applicants. This decision comes on the heels of an internal study that concluded that SAT and ACT scores are a better predictor of success at Dartmouth than other factors – including high school grades. Additionally, the professors (three economists and a sociologist) who conducted the research found that Dartmouth’s test-optional admissions had an unintended consequence that harmed low-income students: “hundreds of less-advantaged students in the 1400 range” did not submit their test scores and consequently were not considered for admittance. It is Dartmouth’s policy to judge test scores from students they consider disadvantaged on a different scale from those they consider privileged; however, without a hard and fast metric like a standardized test score, it will be difficult for the admissions office to be confident about the academic qualifications of a disadvantaged student. Lee Coffin, Dartmouth’s Dean of Admissions, contends that many of these students would have been accepted if they had submitted test scores – even certain students with scores below 1400.
Dartmouth joins MIT and Georgetown as the highest profile institutions that have reinstated testing requirements post-pandemic. Whether this decision will be a tipping point remains to be seen, but, regardless, arguments in agreement with SAT/ACT testing requirements are gaining momentum. Critics of standardized tests raise valid concerns about reduced diversity, but as Dartmouth president Sian Beilock notes, “The research suggests this tool is helpful in finding students we might otherwise miss.” President Beilock asserts that Dartmouth is committed to improving Dartmouth’s economic diversity. If harnessed correctly, SAT and ACT scores can help achieve this end at Dartmouth and beyond.
A Top College Reinstates the SAT (NY Times) – 2/5/24
Race Upheld as a Factor in West Point Admissions
After a preliminary request for injunction was denied by a White Plains U.S District Judge in early January, Students for Fair Admissions, the group that catalyzed the end of affirmative action, last week filed an emergency request to the U.S. Supreme Court to bar the use of race in admissions at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The Supreme Court rejected this request, listing no dissents.
The Court’s 2023 ban on using race as a factor in college admissions exempted military academies from being bound by the decision; Students for Fair Admissions has been since attempting to close this loophole. However, the timing for this emergency request – after West Point had already made hundreds of student offers – makes it seem as though it was not expected to succeed. The door is still open for further attempts to overturn the practice, with the court noting in its ruling that its rejection should not be “construed as expressing any view on the merits of the constitutional question.”
Another FAFSA Delay is Perhaps the Most Impactful
On January 30th, the U.S. Department of Education announced yet another snag in the new FAFSA form (see our coverage below for a full picture of the various issues): colleges will not be receiving applicants’ federal aid information until the “first half” of March at the earliest. DOE Under Secretary James Kvaal declined to mention a specific date – only that information would be released “in batches” – and did not make any guarantees that the process would be done in March. This new timeline for release of information is nearly two months later than what the DOE announced when the FAFSA soft-launch began at the end of December. In light of continual delays, some stakeholders are concerned that student records may not be fully released until April, or even May, causing institutions to push back their commitment deadlines and putting low-income students at risk.
Although the Department of Education’s press release on the matter carried an overwhelming positive tone (and buried the lede), the response from education experts has been anything but:
- “This is devastating—I’m not sure what other word to use—for the students the FAFSA is supposed to help and for institutions that have been waiting for this information.” (Angel Pérez, president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling)
- “For many students who are taking a real leap by even applying to college, uncertainty is as big a factor as the actual dollar amount in aid…The more uncertainty there is, and the shorter the decision window, the less likely they are to enroll.” (Jon Fansmith, senior vice president for government relations at the American Council on Education)
- “It feels like we’re taking one step forward to take 10 steps back…It’s hard to point at this and tell my students, ‘It’s all going to be worth it.’” (Sara Miller, executive director of Green Halo Scholars, a college counseling and financial guidance organization serving low-income and first-gen students around Chicago)
- “The Department of Education had three years to prepare the rollout of the updated FAFSA…Their inability to do their job has real consequences for students and families.” (Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA), ranking member on the Senate education committee)
It is worth noting, however, that the Department of Education’s January 30 press release did (thankfully) announce that it has adjusted the Student Aid Index for inflation, correcting what could have been a $1.8 billion dollar error.
Another ‘Devastating’ FAFSA Delay (Inside HigherEd) – 1/31/24
Virginia to End Legacy Preference in Admissions
On Tuesday of last week, the Virginia House of Delegates approved a bill that would end legacy admissions. The bill was approved unanimously. The bill has already passed through the State Senate, and only needs the signature of Governor Glenn Youngkin (R-VA) in order to pass into law. Governor Youngkin has already signaled his approval for the bill, stating that “admission to Virginia’s universities and colleges should be based on merit.” Virginia is thus poised to become the first state to ban the practice of legacy admissions.
Notably, this decision will affect the College of William and Mary, and the University of Virginia; at the latter, legacy admissions have at times made up as much as 14 percent of its graduating class. Virginia Tech, a notable public university, had previously signaled that it would not consider legacy status in admissions. Assuming the bill, which also includes a ban on considering “donor status,” is indeed signed by Governor Youngkin, the law would take effect July 1 of this year. Although admissions decisions for this fall will have already been made, the incoming freshmen of the class of 2029 will be the first to be admitted to Virginia schools without legacy preferences factoring into admissions decisions.
Virginia Moves to End Legacy Admissions at Its Public Universities (NY Times) – 1/30/24
Below we focus on the ongoing issues surrounding the release of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). On top of headaches for students, parents, and counselors who have experienced slowdows, lockouts, and freezes while trying to complete the form, issues with initial setup of the new system will now lead to further delays as well as compounded uncertainty for some of the most vulnerable students.
Education Department Will Fix $1.8 Billion Mistake – Additional Delays Expected
As NPR broke earlier this month, the financial aid calculations completed as part of the new FAFSA form were incorrect, due to an initial error by the Department of Education in using numbers that were not adjusted for inflation. This week, the DoE vowed to fix this mistake – which would have cost families $1.8 billion in aid – in time for the 2024/2025 award year. That being said, it is uncertain how the additional roadblocks surrounding this rehaul will impact college and university financial aid timelines. Additionally, the Education Department has not released any information on how or when their oversight will be corrected, aside from the following statement: “The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to making higher education possible for more students, including through ensuring students qualify for as much financial aid as possible.”
This announcement by the Education Department reverses its previous stance that it would not have time to make these sweeping adjustments before this year’s awards. Stakeholders remain concerned about additional slow-downs and compressed decision-making timelines for applicants. “Schools were promised FAFSA applicant data by the end of January,” noted National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators president Justin Dreager. “With less than a week to go, the Department has announced a significant operational change that clearly throws that date into question.”
FAFSA Shortcut Is Technically Illegal
In order to expedite the maddingly protracted FAFSA process, some students and parents are exchanging usernames and passwords so that one party can complete the form without the other being present. Doing so, however, is technically against the law. According to the FAFSA terms and conditions, “If you purposefully give false or misleading information, including applying as an independent student without meeting the unusual circumstances required to qualify for such a status, you may be subject to…a fine up to $20,000, imprisonment or both.” Although one imagines that such an innocuous misstep as sharing login credentials between family members is not covered as part of this intimidating legalese, the Department of Education confirmed to the Times that sharing credentials is considered providing false and misleading information.
Whether or not the Department of Education can – or would – enforce the threats of fine and imprisonment is unlikely; however, the purpose of revising the FAFSA is to make the process more streamlined for families, and the system, in its current form, is not making good on that promise for many families. Sharing credentials has been unofficial standard practice for many families, especially those who are low-income or who have first-generation college students. If parents are non-english speakers or have prohibitive work schedules, expecting them to create profiles and regularly log in to an already confusing system in order to hit condensed deadlines is not necessarily reasonable.
How Some Families Are Breaking the Rules to Apply for Financial Aid (NY Times) – 1/27/24
System Error Causes Uncertainty For Undocumented Families
There is currently a system-wide error in the revised FAFSA that is not allowing applicants to move forward through the process without entering a social security number. This means that students whose parents are undocumented or are non-citizens cannot complete the application, even if they are eligible for aid. Whether or not their child has initiated an application, these parents are informed that they are “unauthorized to act on behalf of the student since they already have a 24–25 FAFSA form.”
The United States Department of Education Office of Federal Student Aid has flagged this error as one of nine “open issues” with the soft launch of the form. Currently there is no workaround or timeline for resolution. For students with undocumented and non-citizen parents, this means yet another delay in an already frustrating process. With financial application deadlines approaching, students could be locked out of aid if the issue persists; for some this could mean having to delay or forgo college.
Undocumented Families Locked Out of New FAFSA (Inside HigherEd) – 1/26/24
Recommendations For Navigating the FAFSA Platform
In light of the widespread issues with the new FAFSA form, USA Today released a list of workarounds for some of the most prevalent issues. Two key pieces of recommendation are below:
- Unlike in previous years, students in Iowa, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Vermont need to file a separate application for state aid.
- For the following (dense) question, students need to answer “No,” or they will be ineligible for need-based aid: “Are the student’s parents unwilling to provide their information, but the student doesn’t have an unusual circumstance that prevents them from contacting or obtaining their parents’ information?”
Because of the condensed timeline necessitated by continued delays, it is important that students and families are especially diligent in filling out the form in order to avoid questions or corrections which could further protract the process and potentially put them in danger of not meeting deadlines. Some financial aid experts are advising students to prepare an appeal letter in anticipation of lower-than-expected aid offers.
Got FAFSA errors? Here are some tips on how to avoid the most common ones (USA Today) – 1/29/24
ACT Looks Ahead to 2024
Online ACT – Coming This Fall?
In a recap of the company’s accomplishments of 2023, which include the company’s sixth annual workforce summit and release of its annual graduating class data report, CEO Janet Godwin dropped a major statement: “we’re on track to make the online version of the (ACT) available to all students this fall.” This is big news, especially as the latest ACT newsroom item concerning a shift to digital testing was back in May of 2023, which announced that the ACT was piloting an online test for U.S. students in December and “will expand capacity to include more test centers for students…through 2024.” As of yet, the ACT website is not providing further information on a robust administration of a digital test this fall, and there is currently no official announcement beyond CEO Godwin’s quick aside in her blog post.
The ACT has been a digital exam for students testing outside the U.S. since 2018. Unlike the digital SAT, which has an adaptive structure, the digital ACT is more or less a recreation of the paper-based tests. There are, however, a few key differences from the student perspective. Annotating Reading and Science passages, which has proven a helpful strategy for students taking the paper-based exam, is not viable due to the interface of the testing platform. Additionally, students are not able to make notes directly on math figures and equations, which will present a timing challenge for some. On the other hand, students are able to view English, Reading, and Science questions and passages simultaneously, a feature which most students prefer as it saves them from wasting time flipping back and forth between pages. The current digital ACT interface incorporates many of the same tools as the digital SAT (strikethrough function, zoom, highlighter) as well as some unique features (answer masking, line reader); however, there is currently no integrated calculator or formula sheet and students are not able to test on their own devices.
An online option for all U.S. students would be a watershed moment. One can assume that further information will be provided with the release of fall testing dates. We will be following this story and providing updates as a more official timeline is released.
ACT is Focused Forward in 2024 (ACT Newsroom) – 1/10/24