February News: Yale, Michigan, & the Standardized Test Schism. AI Fallout: Duke Deprioritizes the Essay

Mar 13, 2024

The Standardized Test Schism at Higher Ed Institutions

Last week saw two key selective universities make very different decisions on the future of their admissions policies: Yale announced a “test flexible” policy in which students must submit SAT, ACT, AP, or IB test scores as part of their application, while the University of Michigan formally extended its test-optional policy for the foreseeable future. The rationale behind both decisions, however, was the same: both institutions claimed that their policies would help underserved students.


Critics of standardized testing are skeptical of Yale’s and Dartmouth’s highly-publicized admissions moves, with some claiming that, although the research is sound, institutions are not being fully candid in claiming that diversifying their student body is the main reason for reinstituting testing policies. On the other hand, proponents of testing fear that test-optional policies will exacerbate grade inflation by removing one of the few standardized metrics that remain for admissions officers. Meanwhile, the majority of institutions – including Harvard, Cornell, and the majority of the schools in the Big 10 athletic conference – are waiting to commit to a long-term strategy. In the end, there might not be a one-size-fits-all answer to this problem. According to Dartmouth’s dean of admissions and financial aid, Lee Coffin, the school’s move to mandatory testing is not a “universal truth that everybody must follow. I think there’s lots of schools…that have been test-optional for decades, and they do it well and it’s integral to the way they may read and evaluate their class.” 

The Future of Testing Is Anything but Standardized (Inside HigherEd) – 2/26/24

Yale Reinstates Testing Requirements

Yale University announced last week that it will require standardized test scores from all applicants for fall 2025 enrollment. Yale calls the policy “test flexible” and will allow students to submit either SAT/ACT scores or scores from AP or IB subject tests. This change will not affect students in the current admissions cycle. Although the vast majority of colleges and universities remain test-optional, it is important to note that Yale’s admissions shift means that 2 of the top 10 U.S. News ranked higher education institutions (along with MIT) and one fourth of the Ivy League (along with Dartmouth) now require standardized test scores.


Yale’s decision comes weeks after Dartmouth’s similar announcement, but there have been signs for months that Yale would be moving in this direction. Yale cited the Dartmouth analysis that found hundreds of applicants from lower socioeconomic backgrounds with solid test scores who didn’t submit during test-optional policies. These students could have been accepted had they submitted. Beyond test-optional policies potentially hurting underserved students at Yale, school officials stand by the predictive power of test scores. According to Jeremiah Quinlan, the dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale, the decision to return to testing requirements was a clear one: “students with higher scores have been more likely to have higher Yale GPAs, and test scores are the single greatest predictor of a student’s performance in Yale courses in every model we have constructed.”

Yale to Require Standardized Test Scores for Admissions (NY Times) – 2/22/24

Duke Adjusts its Admissions Policy

Duke University has stopped “assigning points” to standardized test and college essays as part of its admissions process. Previous years applicants’ test scores and essays had been assigned point values of 1 to 5 as part of an applicants’ overall score out of 30. Duke will continue to operate with a point system, with the remaining three categories staying consistent: academics, curriculum strength, recommendations and extracurriculars. School officials contend that the process will be neither test-blind nor essay blind: both will be considered, just not as part of the initial ranking system.


Duke officials have stated that the devaluing of students’ essays has no correlation with the June U.S. Supreme Court decision to end race-conscious admissions. Instead, the main reason for doing so is the proliferation of AI writing software, which has posed a difficulty for admissions officers. According to dean of undergraduate admissions, Christoph Guttentag, “Essays are very much part of our understanding of the applicant. We’re just no longer assuming that the essay is an accurate reflection of the student’s actual writing ability.” As for standardized test scores, Duke has been test-optional since the start of the pandemic, and this could signal a more long-term policy change.

Duke Stops Assigning Point Values to Essays, Test Scores (Inside HigherEd) – 2/21/24

U.S. Supreme Court Denies Challenge to Virginia Public School Admissions Policy

Last Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a challenge to the admissions policy of an “elite” Virginia public high school, closing the door – for now – on exploring the limits of the Court’s affirmative action ban. The admissions policy in question was instituted in 2020 at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, VA, which is considered by the school to be “race neutral.” Admissions officers are instructed to look for a candidates’ “experience factors” without being given the race, sex or name of any applicant. A group of parents of applicants, dubbed the Coalition for T.J., objected to the policy as being discriminatory toward Asian Americans. The group brought the challenge all the way up to the Supreme Court, where it was ultimately denied. Justices Alito and Thomas were the two dissenting voices to the ruling. 


Despite the protests from the Coalition for T.J., the school stands by the policy. Karl Frisch, the chair of the Fairfax County School Board calls the class-conscious policy as both “constitutional and in the best interest of all of our students. It guarantees that all qualified students from all neighborhoods in Fairfax County have a fair shot at attending this exceptional high school.” According to the school board’s brief following the decision, “The new policy is both race neutral and race blind. It was not designed to produce, and did not in fact produce, a student population that approximates the racial demographics of Fairfax County or any other predetermined racial balance.”

Supreme Court Won’t Hear New Case on Race and School Admissions (NY Times) – 2/20/24

Recruited Athletes All-But “Guaranteed” Spots at Hyper-Selective Institutions

While legacy preference in admissions has been under intense scrutiny in recent months, another cause of inequity in selective admissions has flown under the radar: athletic recruiting. According to a 2019 study by Duke, University of Georgia, and University of Oklahoma economists, a Harvard University applicant “with only a 1 percent chance of admission would see his admission likelihood increase to 98 percent if he were a recruited athlete. Being a recruited athlete essentially guarantees admission even for the least-qualified applicants.” Additional data showed that, at Harvard, athlete recruits have 86 percent chance of admissions – versus 33 percent for legacy applicants – and recruited athletes have a higher percentage change of admission than any other group. Furthermore, Ivy League schools do not offer athletic scholarships (though other scholarships are available to students), which means that many Ivy League student athletes are in a financial position to turn down more competitive packages from other institutions. 


This trend extends beyond Harvard: 18 percent of Princeton’s students are student athletes, and Stanford has a similar breakdown at 12 percent. At Brown, 225 of the approximately 1,700 spots available are reserved for athletes; at Berkeley, that figure is 250, at Yale, 200. Beyond the Ivy League, we also have seen an upward trend: from 2000 to 2020, the number of college athletes increased by 45 percent versus a 33 percent overall increase in number of students. While the court of public opinion has turned fiercely against legacy admissions, athletic recruiting is not likely to receive the same pushback, in part because of the potential for revenue generation. The Ivy League collectively made over $30M in 2019 through its football program, and at some institutions, that number is even bigger. In 2023, USA Today released a list of revenue and expenses for NCAA colleges and universities in the 2020-21 fiscal year. The top grossing program was at Ohio state, with a total revenue of $251,615,345, accounting for a net gain of over $25M.

Athletic Recruiting Offers Greater Odds Of Ivy League Admissions Than Legacy Status (Forbes) – 2/15/24

Department of Education Attempts to Ease FAFSA Process

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education announced that it plans to reduce verification requirements for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. As the Department of Education receives the majority of its income data from the IRS, it has stated that it will need to verify fewer applications than in previous years. This change is intended to help expedite processing of student records in light of tight timelines caused by FAFSA delays. Moreover, the DOE has pledged deadline flexibility for colleges and universities and has announced that it will mostly suspend program reviews through June of 2024. These program reviews are administrative-heavy compliance evaluations and now will only be conducted if colleges are suspected of fraud or other impropriety. The number of reviews is expected to drop from several hundred to several dozen.


After several months of continued delays surrounding the rollout of the revised “Better FAFSA” form, the fact that the Department of Education is relaxing some of these requirements is a necessary pressure valve release for colleges and universities. Many institutions have had to modify their timelines to fit the protracted FAFSA rollout. The DOE’s recent announcement that FAFSA data wouldn’t be transmitted to schools until March had put undue pressure on admissions teams. With hope, these new changes will give schools the support necessary to get over the finish line by June.

Education Department to ease FAFSA verification requirements this year (HigherEd Dive) – 2/14/24

College Board to Pay Out $75,000 for Privacy Violation

The College Board has agreed to pay $75,000 as part of a privacy violation settlement. The Attorney General’s office claimed that the College Board leveraged its “Student Search Service,” meant to connect students with college and scholarship programs, to sell student information to third parties – and that the College Board sent marketing materials to these students unrelated to its exams. This privacy violation affected 237,000 students and is claimed to have netted the College Board tens of millions of dollars.


In a press release, College Board did not admit any wrongdoing, stating that it “disagrees with the state’s interpretation of…a unique 2014 state law…with no evident application to standardized testing. Nevertheless, officials with the New York State Education Department and attorney general’s office have taken a different legal position on the interpretation of the law, and we fully cooperated with their inquiry.” The company contends that Search had a “proven, positive effect on college-going” and that “there is no finding that Search harmed students or that colleges or scholarship organizations ever misused student information.” Nonetheless, the company “is pleased to have resolved this investigation.”

SAT administrator College Board settles New York claims it sold student data (Reuters) – 2/13/24

Decision Deadlines Extended in California

In the wake of yet another FAFSA delay, The University of California and California State University systems have announced that they will extend their cutoff date for students to commit to acceptance packages: from May 1st to May 15th. All 33 campuses over both systems will be affected by this decision. UC and CSU are the most prominent university systems to announce an extended deadline. They join a small group of institutions, including Oregon State University, who announced in late January to shift deadlines to June 1st.


This commitment extension is an important next step for most colleges, as, in the words of Oregon State University’s Press Release, “Holding to the traditional May 1 deadline would impose impossible constraints on parents and students who need to receive, process, and consider financial aid offers before making a final college choice for Fall 2024.” Low-income families have been especially impacted by the FAFSA delays: knowing financial aid offers are often necessary for these families to commit to an institution.

California Universities Extend Decision Deadlines (Inside HigherEd) – 2/9/24

Dartmouth Provides More Context on Reinstating Testing Requirements

In the week following Dartmouth’s announcement that it will be returning to standardized testing requirements for admissions, Inside HigherEd sat down with Lee Coffin, Dartmouth’s dean of admissions and financial aid. A few highlights from the conversation:

  • The decision to go test optional was always considered a temporary “pause.”
  • The test-optional decision was based around students’ limited access during the public health crisis of Covid, rather than a commentary on testing in general.
  • The decision to return to mandatory-testing was “evidence-based,” but aligned with Coffin’s instincts.
  • There is particular value in testing as aggregate GPA and other metrics are no longer reported; furthermore, while we are in a “data deficit,” the volume of applications has gone up.
  • This is the most “wildly diverse” pool of students Coffin has ever seen.


This was an enlightening interview, especially Dean Coffin’s clarification that the move to reinstate testing requirements is not one-size-fits-all. According to Coffin, “We did not see this decision at Dartmouth as a more universal truth that everybody must follow. I think there’s lots of schools…that have been test-optional for decades, and they do it well and it’s integral to the way they may read and evaluate their class.” As for the controversy surrounding this decision: “Information in and of itself should not be seen to be controversial…What’s the context from which these scores or transcripts or recommendations were produced?—that’s valuable.”

Dartmouth’s Admissions Dean on the Return to Testing (Inside HigherEd) – 2/7/24

Population Decline Could Severely Alter the Higher Education Landscape

In 2025, it is predicted that the number of high school graduates in the U.S. will reach a peak of 3.5 million; after which time, the number will drop by as many as 15 percentage points by 2034. Until recently, the U.S. Census Bureau predicted a bounceback, growing to 4.45 million college-bound students by 2045. New data has changed the forecast, however. The Bureau now predicts that this population will continue to shrink to approximately 3.9 million by 2039 – and that it will never rise above 4 million any time in this century. That being said, these numbers are predictions and could be mitigated by factors such as increased immigration.


The impending population decline will likely have deep ramifications for the higher education landscape, especially if the share of high school graduates who immediately enroll in college continues to decline (this figure currently sits at 62 percent). With fewer enrollees, some institutions, especially less selective and affluent ones, will be in danger of closure. Additionally, this downward trend could affect admissions policies, driving schools to recruit more heavily from certain populations such as international or older students, and even affect long-entrenched foundational structures, such as tenure for professors.

Colleges Were Already Bracing for an ‘Enrollment Cliff.’ Now There Might Be a Second One. (The Chronicle of Higher Education) – 2/7/24

U.S. Department of Education to Provide Additional Support For “Better” FAFSA

On Monday of last week, the U.S. Department of Education released a “FAFSA College Support Strategy” aimed to “provide additional personnel, funding, resources, and technology to help schools and students complete the better FAFSA form.” The Department is planning to stage federal financial services experts to certain “lower-resourced” colleges and set up a “concierge service,” which will give a “broad set” of colleges with “personalized support” from financial aid experts. In addition, $50 million has been allocated for non-profit financial aid support groups to use to recruit financial aid professionals and provide technical assistance to “under resourced colleges.”


Although the rhetoric from the Department of Education continues to be a focus on the positives, including the 3.6 million forms that have already been submitted, many leaders are left unsatisfied. In a statement to Inside HigherEd, Kiely Fletcher, the VP of enrollment management at the University of Illinois at Chicago (the first institution to extend its commitment deadline), expressed the disappointment shared by many: “Unfortunately, my first reaction is that this is an underwhelming response to our current crisis…while we appreciate the secretary providing an updated timetable …the partial measures do little to alleviate the burden and anxiety expressed by students, their parents and higher ed professionals.”

U.S. Department of Education Deploys Federal Personnel, Funding, and Resources to Support Colleges, Students, and Families with Better FAFSA (DOE Press Release) – 2/5/24

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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