Wednesday, December 14, 2022

The 2022 Year in Review

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

In a year where everyone pretended COVID isn’t a thing, the college counseling world saw a modest return to a sense of normal that is somewhat unfounded. Here are the highlights:

Welcome to the Family, Test Optional The honeymoon period after the COVID-based shotgun wedding between test optional admissions and thousands of colleges has led to some settling in that’s unsettling. While some colleges are returning to requiring tests, those that were forced to join the test optional bandwagon in 2020 seem to have found a way to assimilate the twist into what is, in essence, the same admissions process as before. 

The little data out there suggests gains in admission at some test-optional colleges among students of color and underserved populations—good news and overdue. In addition, many colleges are reporting that submitted scores are higher than the college saw pre-pandemic. Combined with the alarming difference in admit rates between students who submit scores and those who don’t, and it’s clear that the admissions revolution test optional was supposed to present has been somewhat muted—testing still matters a great deal. Test or don’t test, all colleges should do a data-heavy analysis of their policy in 2023, and share that widely—it’s time to stop guessing about numbers. 

Increase in Applications, Part I True growth in college admissions continues to be stunted in large part by the ever-increasing application rates at the 25 colleges Main Street Journalism covers. While some regional colleges have seen enrollment declines of 40%, the Big Schools continue to have record crowds, with a few seeing minor declines that raise their admit rate from 5% to what the public sees as a “Hey, they’ll take anybody” rate of 7%.

Some professionals have called out these colleges, urging them to embrace an “enough is enough” approach to marketing, but that’s not the real problem. A few years back, high school parents were asked what the average tuition was at four-year colleges. They responded on average by saying $40,000, when the average was, in fact, $12,500. Where do parents get these ideas? From media sources who continue to conflate cost and admit rate with selectivity and match. I’ll offer any media member a two-hour seminar on how to cover college admissions. The way it’s currently being done is tearing the fabric of our society.

Increase in Applications, Part II The average student is now applying to more colleges. Between needing to find the best deal, and perhaps continued reticence to wander too far away from home due to COVID, students are placing their bets across a wider number of venues. This leads to the question, “How well do these students actually know these places?” The answer lies in uncertain waters, but a big part of it undoubtedly lies with…

School Counselors and Duties Data from the effect COVID had on student learning and affect has led policy makers to make lots—and I mean Bill Gates-type lots—of money for school mental health programs. The good news is that means more school counselors are being hired. Unfortunately, that usually means less time is being spent on college advising.

It makes no sense to send students to college if they are less than emotionally ready to take it on. On the other hand, there is much to be said for using the college selection process to set goals and aspirations to inspire the student to return to a greater sense of self. College counseling is an essential part of mental health treatment. Here’s hoping more people feel that way in the coming year.

Have a great holiday.

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Test-optional Admissions and Data

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Test-optional admissions is once again in the news, as a prominent college announced last week they would once again require submission of test scores starting for everyone applying in Fall, 2023. This announcement adds to the small, but in some cases notable, number of colleges that have announced a return to testing.

Like the announcements before it, this notice is raising the hackles of many respected members of the college counseling community. Their rationale is fairly sound; the tests have long been accused of being racially and socially biased, and claims exist that suggest students can prepare for the tests in a way that improves their score, but not the understanding of the content.

I’ve been a big champion of test-optional admissions, and still am—if the test score really doesn’t add anything relevant to the application, why are we asking students to take them? At the same time, both sides of the test-optional movement have been, and continue to be, extremely lax in the presentation of data supporting their side of the issue. Counselors know numbers don’t always tell the story of a student’s ability to learn and contribute to a college campus, but taking a stand on this issue without a serious look at data ignores a big part of the story.

And why doesn’t data play a more prominent role? Well…

Colleges simply don’t have it, Part I. Many test-optional colleges made their decision to abandon testing due to COVID. Their rationale was largely pragmatic; if a bright student can’t take the test, they can’t earn a score—and if we require a score, we can’t admit them. The dire circumstances of the testing access experienced at the height of COVID made the test-optional decision easier; without it, no score means no students, and no students means no college.

Colleges simply don’t have it, Part II. Since then, the colleges that went test optional have all kinds of data they could use to measure the need for tests. Creating an institutional definition of student success, it wouldn’t be hard to compare grades, test scores, degree completion, satisfaction with the college experience and more. The college announcing its intention to require testing claims to have done just this—kind of. The press release they sent said they had “evidence” test scores helped predict student success, but anyone who’s taken a stats course knows there’s a huge gap between evidence and data. The two simply aren’t the same. (It turns out the college did use data, making one wonder why they didn’t announce it in the press release.)

Colleges don’t want to know if data matters or not. The best defense I ever heard from a college regarding required submission of test scores went something like this. We’re a very big school, and most students will take almost all of their first two years of classes where the sole means of assessment is a multiple choice test. If an applicant doesn’t “test well” with the ACT or SAT, why would we expect them to do well at our college?

That’s not a bad argument, but without data, it’s too easy to have the claim “make sense” and not test it out, since any test that suggested there was no such relationship puts the college in a rough spot.

All of this reinforces my current stand on testing—if you think you need it, prove it with rigorously applied data. If you’re not going to do that, let’s continue to make college more accessible by leaving the tests out of the admissions equation.