Harvard, Caltech Back to Testing, Shorter ACT, DEI Rebrands, Princeton Legacies Continue

Apr 19, 2024

DEI Offices Rebrand to Preserve Their MissionIn Tennessee, a bill has been introduced to the legislature, which, among other functions, “prohibits…state contractors from requiring diversity, equity, and inclusion training and education for purposes of the issuance of a degree.”  Meanwhile, at the University of Tennessee, what was previously the campus Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion program is now referred to as “the Division of Access and Engagement.” Such rebranding is becoming a trend at institutions in states such as Florida, Texas, and Louisiana, where state government has been especially against DEI efforts.In many cases, this practice has allowed school faculty to lawfully (at least for now) uphold the mission of DEI offices. Some opponents of DEI initiatives, however, feel that there need to be deeper shifts to these departments than mere title changes, and that offices like the “Division of Access and Opportunity” at the University of Oklahoma is the “same lipstick on the ideological pig.”Takeaways:

The aforementioned rebranding is happening at a time when many higher education institutions in the more than 20 states where anti-DEI bills have been introduced are implementing layoffs and closures. Earlier this month, UT Austin, in a controversial move, cut nearly 60 staff members who had formerly worked in DEI positions. Additionally, since the passing of anti-DEI bills, some University of Texas campuses have closed centers that serve LGBTQIA+ students.

Other colleges, however, are working to uphold DEI principles while finding ways to remain lawful. Rebranding has been a means for institutions to continue to offer DEI services to students without risking legal repercussions, but, in some cases, schools are deciding to hold strong to naming conventions. There was a recent push at Florida State University to change the terminology of their required “diversity” courses (which include such politically neutral concentrations as Buddhist ethics and German literature) to “perspectives and awareness.” The proposed name change was rejected by the faculty senate, with one member positing that “in the context of attacks on D.E.I., I (wonder) if changing the name of this requirement gives weight to those attacks.”

With State Bans on D.E.I., Some Universities Find a Workaround: Rebranding (NY Times) – 4/12/24

Harvard Backpedals, Reinstates Standardized Testing Requirements

Last Thursday, Harvard University announced that it will reinstate the SAT/ACT testing requirement as part of its admissions criteria for the class of 2029. This decision is an about-face from Harvard’s previous statement that it would commit to a test-optional policy through the class of 2030. All applicants, barring those who in specific cases are not able to access a testing administration, will need to provide scores; however these scores may be self-reported. Additionally, according to the admissions FAQs on Harvard’s website, in “exceptional cases” (which have not yet been further elaborated), students may meet the testing requirement through AP exam results, IB actual or predicted scores, GCSE/A-Level actual or predicted results, or National Leaving Exams Results or predictions. As with those by Yale and Dartmouth, Harvard’s reasoning for reinstating SAT/ACT score requirements included a focus on less-advantaged students. According to a statement by Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Hopi E. Hoekstra, “More information, especially such strongly predictive information, is valuable for identifying talent from across the socioeconomic range.”


Although the move to require testing is surprising in light of Harvard’s previous pronouncement that they were committed to test optional admissions through next year, the decision makes sense in context of the wave of other hyper-selective institutions reinstating their standardized testing requirements. In fact, Opportunity Insights, which published a study on the predictive power of SAT and ACT scores, is a Harvard-based group. Looking forward, one wonders if Harvard’s shift in policy will be an incentive for other schools currently on the fence to follow suit. Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, Cornell, Stanford, and many other top institutions are currently following provisional test-optional policies, some of which will be expiring in the coming months. Students, parents, counselors, and other stakeholders are watching closely to see how these schools will modify their admissions policies.

In Sudden Reversal, Harvard To Require Standardized Testing for Next Admissions Cycle (Harvard Crimson) – 4/11/24

Caltech Moves from Test-Blind to Test-Mandatory

The California Institute of Technology will require students to submit SAT or ACT scores as part of their application starting with those enrolling in fall of 2025. According to the university statement, this change “reflects the judgment that standardized testing provides admissions officers and faculty reviewers useful information about academic preparedness as part of a holistic consideration of all prospective students.” This decision marks a big shift in policy as Caltech has previously been “test-free” since 2020.


While a number of schools have recently switched from test-optional to test-mandatory, it is noteworthy that Caltech is the first major institution to require SAT or ACT results after being test-blind since the start of the pandemic. Last week’s university statement cited the fact that the vast majority of applicants – 95 percent of the most recently enrolled class – had taken standardized tests, and noted that “it is critical that our admissions office…have available to them all the information that could shape their understanding of a prospective student’s readiness for our rigorous academic programs.” Whether other test-blind schools follow Caltech’s lead remains to be seen.

Caltech Restores Standardized Test Requirement for Undergraduate Admission (The Caltech Weekly) – 4/11/24

Significant Dip in FAFSA Completion & One State’s Effort to Reverse the Trend

According to data released by the U.S. Department of Education, by the end of March, 40 percent fewer students had completed the Free Application for Financial Aid (FAFSA) than in 2023. This is somewhat grim news from the first set of data to differentiate completion rates from submission rates. FAFSA submissions are also down year-over-year by 27 percent. The 13 point disparity is likely due to the numerous form errors, glitches, and other difficulties with the process. In past years, FAFSA submissions have been approximately 7 percent greater than completions, while this year submissions outnumber submissions by a significantly larger 30 percent. This chasm further illuminates the ongoing issues facing stakeholders in making corrections to submitted forms.


In New York State, FAFSA completion is down from 35,500 last year to 19,500 this year, which represents a more than 45 percent decline. The state is trying multiple approaches in an attempt to reverse this trend. In addition to New York governor dubbing April “Financial Aid Awareness Month,” New York Public Libraries have been hosting late-night FAFSA completion sessions, and the City University of New York is leveraging its financial aid officers to advise at local high schools – and current college students to provide peer counseling to high school students working through the form. If the FAFSA completion doesn’t drastically change soon, some fear that there could be a significant drop in college enrollment, especially among those who most rely on financial aid: low-income and first-generation students.

FAFSA Completion Down 40 Percent (Inside Higher Ed) – 4/9/24

For Some, College Costs Inching Toward $100,000 Per Year

At Vanderbilt University, the sticker price for a newly-admitted engineering student for tuition, room, board, supplies, and personal expenses was $98,426. A student whose family lives further than a car ride away from Nashville could even be looking at an annual cost of over $100,000. While this figure is far from the standard at U.S. colleges and universities (even at Vanderbilt, only 35 percent of students pay full price), other hyper-selective institutions may cross the six-figure threshold in the coming years. 

Rising sticker prices have led many to question the value of such an exorbitantly priced product. According to Julian Treves, a financial adviser and college specialist, “You could get an engineering degree at a state flagship university that’s just as valuable as something you’d get at Vanderbilt.” That being said, without widely available quantitative data on quality of education and qualitative return-on-investment, high tuition prices are a means for institutions to differentiate themselves from competitors. As the author of this piece puts it, some view the cost as “a signal of excellence.” And some of those families are willing to pay.

Deeper Look:

As mentioned, most families’ end up paying much less than sticker price for college. The College Board reported that the average 2023-24 list price for tuition, fees, housing and food for private, non-profit four-year institutions was $56,190 and $24,030 for in-state students at public colleges; however, 18 percent of four-year private college students paid nothing for tuition and fees, while 31 percent of four-year public college students did the same. Additionally, according to a study by the National Association of College and University Business Officers, many other students see advertised tuition prices cut by 56 percent. There are, however, hidden costs for students beyond tuition, which can put a significant financial hardship on families who qualify for free or reduced tuition. On the institutions’ end, even the tuition prices approaching six figures are not enough to cover the costs of educating a student. Williams College, for example, spends nearly $50,000 more per student than its list price, the cost of which is covered by donors, alumni, and their endowment.

Some Colleges Will Soon Charge $100,000 a Year. How Did This Happen? (NY Times) – 4/5/24

“FAFSA Fail” Hearing Set for April 10th

On April 10th, the House higher education subcommittee will hold a hearing on how the rollout of the revised Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) has affected students, families, and colleges. Witnesses for the hearing have yet to be announced, but as the bungled Better FAFSA rollout has been widely criticized across the political spectrum, one should expect the subcommittee to pull few punches. According to the Republican chair of the subcommittee, Utah representative Burgess Owens, the process “has been defined by poor communication, negligence, and incompetence that has wreaked havoc on the entire university system.” 


It should be stated, once again, that the Better FAFSA rollout’s substantial number of glitches, oversights, and miscalculations have presented an alarming problem for admissions departments, families, and other stakeholders. At the same time, the Education Department’s failures have also provided opportunity for anti-higher education ideologues and those looking to improve their cachet during an election year. It is thus difficult not to take such a hearing with a grain of salt, especially one with an official title as sensational as “FAFSA Fail.”

House Subcommittee to Hold Hearing on ‘FAFSA Fail’ (Inside Higher Ed) – 4/4/24

UT Austin Cut Staff To Comply With Anti-DEI Laws

Last week, The University of Texas Austin laid off approximately 60 staff members who had previously worked in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) positions prior to staff restructuring in January. In addition, the university will be closing the Division of Campus and Community Engagement, which was previously known as the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement. These cuts and this closure are part of UT Austin’s attempts to comply with Texas’ anti-DEI law (SB 17), which bans public higher education institutions from maintaining DEI offices or holding mandatory DEI training. University officials stated that affected staff members have been given a 90-day layoff notice and will have the opportunity to apply to other open positions at UT Austin.


In university president Jay Hartzell’s statement following the terminations, he focused on the redundancies that were caused by reshuffling after SB 17 was passed: “we have concluded that additional measures are necessary to reduce overlap, streamline student-facing portfolios, and optimize and redirect resources into our fundamental activities of teaching and research.” Advocate groups such as Texas NAACP and AAUP, however, believe that the layoffs are retaliatory against employees with previous DEI associations. In a statement, these groups “call(ed) on University of Texas at Austin officials to be forthcoming about these terminations, their impact on University services to students and the community, and the provisions made to displaced staff, who until today had been assured that their positions were not in jeopardy,”

University of Texas at Austin eliminating nearly 60 staff who once worked in DEI roles, civil rights and faculty groups say (CNN) – 4/4/24

Further Delays in FAFSA Fiasco

The U.S. Education Department announced that, due to a tax issue discovered in late March, 5 percent of completed Institutional Student Information Records (ISIRs) – or over 320,000 forms, will need to be reprocessed. Inconsistencies in tax data from the IRS led to under-calculations in aid by the DOE, prompting a need for reprocessing. These inconsistencies affected the approximately 15 percent of applicants who qualify for education tax credits. The Department of Education is choosing not to reprocess the 10 percent of students whose aid was overcalculated, instead ceding responsibility to resolve these student records to individual colleges.


Although the Department of Education acted quickly to address this particular error, combined with the long series of missteps associated with the Better FAFSA rollout, any new issue threatens to derail an already tenuous admissions year. According to Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, “Continually taking two steps forward and one giant step back is not a sustainable pathway toward getting financial aid offers out to students and families.”

Tax Errors Set Back FAFSA Processing—Again (Inside Higher Ed) – 4/3/24

Shorter ACT Test To Be Piloted

According to the ACT website, the company will be piloting a shorter version of the test for a select group of students in June 2024 as part of a “college-reportable study.” If a student testing in June agrees to additional conditions at sign up, they could be randomly assigned to a truncated test with fewer questions and reduced timing. This shortened version will only be available in online test rooms. Students will not know if they have the standard or shortened version until test day.


If a student opts in and ends up taking the pilot exam, their scores will be available in the usual 3-8 week window but will “not be released until additional study-related analysis is completed;” one can thus imagine that scores of those taking the pilot test will likely be released after those of regular test takers. Additionally, scores from the pilot test will not be available for the ACT Test Information Release, which provides students with a digital copy of test questions and answer key after the test. As of this writing, the ACT has not released further details of the shortened test, but we will be following this story as it develops.

ACT Website

Fewer Students Apply to Harvard than Last Year

At the same time many highly-selective colleges and universities – including UPenn, Dartmouth, Columbia, and MIT – are hitting record numbers of applicants, Harvard University saw a drop in applications. This year, the institution received 54,008 undergraduate applications versus last year’s 56,937, representing a drop of about 5 percent. Early applications were also down year over year by nearly 1,300 (3 percent). This is, however, the fourth year in a row that Harvard has received over 50,000 applications. Harvard has since offered admission to 1,937 students for the class of 2028.


It has not been a quiet year at Harvard. The University faced extreme scrutiny from all sides over its response to the October 7th attacks in Israel and the subsequent war in Gaza. Harvard’s initial hands-off approach led to claims of both antisemitism and islamophobia, backlash from alumni and donors, and a senate hearing that proved disastrous for the university. In the wake of  her highly-criticized testimony and questions of academic integrity, President Claudine Gay – Harvard’s first black president – resigned at the beginning of 2024, leaving questions over the future direction of the university. That all being said, University of Pennsylvania, which also came under much fire over its handling of the Gaza conflict and saw the resignation of its president, received 65,230 applications this year – a record high and a year-over-year increase of 10 percent.

After a Year of Turmoil, Harvard’s Applications Drop (NY Times) – 3/29/24

Legacy Admissions Continue at Princeton University

On Tuesday of last week, Princeton University announced that it will continue to consider whether an applicant is directly related to an alumnus of the institution. Legacy status was one of the practices scrutinized in an internal study by Princeton, which examined its admissions policies to “ensure (they) are optimally serving the University’s mission.” The study found that legacy status has a only “small” impact on racial and socioeconomic diversity among the student population. According to the report, legacy preference is functioning solely “as a tie-breaker between equally well-qualified applicants in limited instances.” Furthermore, the report concluded that legacy preference benefits “fewer than 30 students per year,” which accounts for less than 2 percent of admitted students.


After the end of affirmative action, much scrutiny has been on preference on legacy status in college admissions. A practice that has gained the reputation of greatly favoring wealthy – and white – families, legacy admissions has been banned in Virginia and will likely also be in Connecticut and New York. It has been discontinued at several prominent private universities as well, with many others considering doing away with the practice. It may thus come as a surprise that Princeton did not do away with practice, but if the institution’s report is to be taken at face value, the impact of legacy admissions may be overstated. According to the university, “In any given year, the vast majority (around 70 percent) of legacy applicants are denied admission. Of the alumni children who are admitted, the overwhelming majority are admitted regardless of the legacy preference and before any tie-breaker is considered.”

Princeton University Admissions To Continue Considering Legacy Status (Forbes) – 3/26/24

Written by

Zachary Adler
Author Image Since 2010, Zach has been helping students achieve their college readiness goals, specializing in all sections of the SAT, ACT, PSAT, and SHSAT. Prior to joining Onsen, Zach worked for a global investment firm, as well as in various roles in the education space. He has served as a youth mentor and has run college readiness information sessions for students in under-resourced communities. Additionally, Zach is a writer and filmmaker. He is an International Baccalaureate scholar and a graduate of Boston University.

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