College Admissions in an Era of School Closures

COVID-19 related school closures are impacting 55.1 million students nationwide

COVID-19 related school closures are impacting 55.1 million students nationwide. Widespread school closures create challenges for every student, including the 2.9 million High School Juniors who are still planning to attend College in the Fall of 2021. 

For many Juniors, Spring of 2020 was to be a critical window for college admissions. Many 11th graders are focused on the ACT or the SAT, the two leading college entrance exams.  With testing dates canceled and admission deadlines looming, everyone is asking “What now?”

Colleges and Universities are starting to release their accommodations for admissions standards for the graduating class of 2021. 

The University of California system announced that they will not require a standardized test score for admission to the freshmen class of 2021.  Additionally,  they will accept “Pass” or “Credit” grades for Winter, Spring, and Summer of 2020 (normally, the UC system requires a letter grade in all required coursework). The UC system uses 14 criteria when evaluating a student application. Additionally, the UC system is relaxing application, registration, and deposit deadlines. This means that for one year, the UC system will join a growing list of colleges that have made standardized testing an optional part of the admissions process. 

Other colleges and universities are committing to a three-year test-optional period, including Tufts University. Several colleges and universities see this as an opportunity to learn about the ramifications of a test-optional admissions criteria. 

Colleges and universities have been committed to breaking down barriers to the admissions process caused by school closures. As David Coleman, CEO of College Board discussed, colleges are interested in a bright, engaged, and diverse student community.  Additionally, colleges are concerned about their post-COVID enrollment numbers; they rely on student enrollment to keep their school open. Colleges and universities are still invested in attracting the best students possible and the new admission standards create new opportunities for students.  For some students, the opportunity to submit a test-optional application means they can skip hours of test prep. But is test-optional admissions an advantage to every student? 

What Does “Test Optional” Really Mean for Students?

Test-optional admissions comes at a cost. A college must now measure a student’s academic potential by how they did in the past. 

Without a standardized test score, other components such as GPA and rigor of coursework become more important. This may be an advantage to a student who has a solid transcript of high marks and AP/IB courses,  but this may disadvantage students who have an inconsistent grade point average, students that moved schools several times, or students who did not attempt AP/Honors classes.  

Some schools are grading coursework as planned, while others have stated that AP/Honors coursework during the Spring 2020 semester is no longer eligible for a GPA bump.  If a school decides to issue Pass/Credit grades instead of letter grades, the coursework will count however will not factor into a student’s gpa.  For students who are working hard to raise their gpa for college admissions, they may be at a grading disadvantage right at a time when grading practices matter more.  

Most students have no control over grading practices, grading policies, and course offerings at their current high school. Moving schools, participating in arts or athletics, and family obligations sometimes interfere with advanced coursework. Some students may need a standardized test score to demonstrate future potential if their academic past doesn’t match the student they could be. 

Scholarships in Test-Optional Context

In addition to the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, many states and a majority of colleges and universities offer merit-based scholarship money. For some states most major colleges, merit is assessed based on standardized test scores and high school GPA. Merit-based scholarships may still require an SAT or ACT score. If students do not take a standardized test, they may be leaving thousands of dollars on the table; possibly thousands of dollars per term. A standardized test score may be a key component for any student trying to minimize the out-of-pocket cost of college. 

The college admissions process is stressful for students in ‘normal’ conditions. School closures and changes in admission requirements are anything but normal. As we work to support the next generation of college students, we have to remain flexible and student-focused. Colleges will always want bright, engaged learners who can contribute to the community of learning. These traits aren’t measured in a gpa or in a test score.

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