Willamette's Academic Council unanimously endorses test-optional admissions

by Adam Torgerson MBA '14 and Russell Yost MBA '05,

The change reflects a nationwide trend to a more holistic review of applicants, especially from underrepresented groups.

Willamette’s CLA Academic Council unanimously endorsed a recommendation by the Faculty Admission Committee to adopt a test-optional admission process beginning in fall 2017. Prospective students will be able to submit standardized test scores as part of Willamette’s admission process, but they will not be required to do so.

Willamette joins a growing movement of colleges nationwide relying on test-optional admissions, including many of its peer institutions. Of U.S. News and World Report’s top 100 liberal arts colleges this year, 45 have made standardized tests optional for all or many of their prospective students.

Instead, students will be asked to write about what Willamette’s motto and values might mean for their educational goals and vocational aspirations. This change reflects Willamette’s alignment with another movement in higher education: “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern For Others And The Common Good Through College Admissions.” Turning the Tide is a collective effort by colleges to “reshape the college admissions process and promote greater ethical engagement among aspiring students, reduce excessive achievement pressure, and level the playing field for economically disadvantaged students.”

These changes also reflect the goal outlined by the Board of Trustees Subcommittee on Access and Affordability (SA&A) in matching or leading Willamette’s Northwest peer group and aspirant group in serving students who are Pell eligible, first generation or from historically underrepresented groups.

Willamette has already demonstrated significant progress in attracting these students – and is working towards improving graduation rates in line with the university’s stated goal of 80%. The SA&A is also reviewing strategies to decrease average student debt to a level less than comparable colleges.

The committee considered the change to test optional for many reasons, most notably that the SAT and ACT may dissuade talented, underrepresented students from applying to Willamette. Recognizing the importance of college access to a just and equitable society as well as its enrichment of our students’ education experience, the committee worked over the last two academic years to evaluate research into standardized testing, alternatives to the SAT or ACT, other colleges’ outcomes when making admission test-optional, and potential consequences of changing admission requirements.

While the SAT and ACT remain strong predictors of first-year college success, the committee’s report cites evidence that a holistic review of an applicant’s high school record has comparable predictive power. In fact, the Faculty Admission Committee analyzed the last two years of incoming Willamette students and found that such an informed review of high school performance, including GPA, was a stronger predictor of first-year students’ grades than the SAT.

A University of California analysis of data from 1994-2011 looked, in part, at how well the SAT predicted successful completion and found that the SAT was a relatively poor predictor of whether students would graduate from a UC school; it’s predictive power was especially poor for black and Latino students.

In 1994, about a quarter of the variance among comparable students’ test scores could be attributed to three factors: race/ethnicity, family income and parental education. Now, these factors account for a third of the variance among comparable students’ scores, raising concerns about its impact on the college prospects of underrepresented and first-generation students.

“We believe that the CLA can go test-optional in admissions and thereby enhance student diversity while maintaining - if not improving - academic quality and graduation rates,” says Sammy Basu, politics professor and chair of the Faculty Admission Committee.

Strong evidence supports this notion. The report cites a large, recent, eight-year study of 33 test-optional colleges, including 123,000 students that found a “trivial” difference between students who had submitted test scores and those that hadn’t. The difference in cumulative GPA was 0.05, and graduation rates differed by 0.6%. Researchers also found that students with strong high school GPAs and weak standardized test scores did well in college, while students with strong test scores and weaker high school GPA earned lower grades in college.

Admission changes have bolstered diversity at other campuses, but the committee also highlighted the need to pair changes in reliance on testing with complementary changes in curriculum, pedagogy and student support services.

“Institutions that have succeeded in building more inclusive communities go beyond making tests optional in admissions,” says Michael Beseda, Vice President of Enrollment and University Communications, “Colleges should support all students during the transition from high school to college, including mentoring interactions with professors. This support is even more critical for students from underrepresented groups.”