Justin Joseph, Contributing Columnist
Last spring, VCU joined a national movement of colleges and universities that identify as “test-optional”meaning they no longer require students to submit test scores in order to be considered for admission. Despite the buzz generated by these policy changes, the new VCU admission policy is not as groundbreaking as many of us were led to believe.
Although many Americans consider the SAT to be a fundamental part of the college admissions process, institutions like Harvard University, the Brookings InstituTE and the National Association for College Admissions Counseling have found racial and socioeconomic biases associated with the exam. President Michael Rao said in his last State of the University address that, “We are not denying a transformative education to students who we know would flourish here just because they don’t have a certain SAT score.” Rao went on to call the test “fundamentally flawed,” and this year’s freshman with a 3.3 GPA or higher were no longer required to submit scores with their applications.
Such declarations would make it seem like VCU prioritizes equal access to options in higher education. Most VCU students and faculty support making academic opportunities available to students regardless of their socioeconomic background and racial identification.
“Let’s take first-generation students for example — we’ve seen on average a 70 point lower SAT score but the same GPA,” said vice provost for strategic enrollment Luke Schultheis in an interview with the CT last spring. “We’ve been denying those students admission previously, but now we won’t be.”
But SAT and ACT scores are still required for those who apply to the VCU School of Engineering as well as the Honors College and its Guaranteed Admissions Programs. The Presidential, Provost and Deans’ scholarships, three of VCU’s most prestigious merit scholarships, also use standardized test scores as a selection factor.
These exceptions to score-optional review may be due to the competitive nature of these academic tracks and opportunities, but the selective nature of the new admissions policy perpetuates the injustice that is prevalent within our higher education system.
The score requirements send a message to the VCU community that those who are racially and economically privileged are more deserving to be an engineer, participate in a community focused on intellectual and personal development,or receive the limited amount of funds currently earmarked for scholarships. They also close off many doors to applicants who want to take advantage of the best VCU has to offer.
Furthermore, William Hiss, a former dean of admissions and vice president at Bates College, published a report for the National Association for College Admissions Counseling that found no significant difference in college GPA or graduation rates among students who submitted and did not submit their SAT scores at 33 test-optional institutions. The students who chose not to submit their scores were primarily women, first-generation, minority or low-income students.
“This might be a mildly interesting point of research, except that the economic health of our society will significantly depend on how many students develop professional and cultural skills through demanding educations,” Bates’ report stated.
Closing these doors creates injustice not only within VCU’s campus but also throughout the professional world and society. A report from the National Action Council for Minorities and Engineering found that African-Americans and Hispanics make up just five and six percent of employed engineers, respectively.
Wake Forest University became the first top-30 national university to announce a test-optional policy in 2008 and the New York Times reported that follow-up studies of Wake Forest found the average incoming GPA actually increased after implementing the new standard. Furthermore, the 2012 freshman class consisted of 20 percent more students who were in the top 10 percent of their high school class than before the test-optional measure took effect in 2009.
“We’re recruiting high-achieving, high-GPA students,” Schultheis said last spring in reference to several new marketing and data analysis techniques his department is utilizing.
Rao similarly said in last year’s State of the University address that in the last four years, VCU’s graduation rate has increased by 9 percent in addition to a 20 percent increase in freshmen who are enrolled in a full course load. Last year, Rao emphasized VCU’s average GPA increase over the last decade — from 3.2 in 2004 to 3.6 in 2014.
“I think that’s going to continue,” Schultheis said. “And now we’ll be able to help transform the lives of students and families and the economy because of the GPA indicator of success, not a standardized test score.”
But first-generation college students may still be discouraged by the high levels of student debt currently riddling headlines and savings accounts across the country. Less privileged students who actively pursue higher education in a competitive STEM field risk a competitive advantage by being forced to work full-time in order to successfully meet basic living expenses, let alone test prep courses or tutoring that can easily total to thousands of dollars.
This disparity will remain uncorrected with the implementation of test-optional policies that only apply to a certain demographic of students. Students in poverty would also be more willing to pursue higher education if they were to receive scholarships awarded by the university and the Honors College.
These score requirements are even more ludicrous considering the inability of the SAT or ACT to represent skills that are crucial to success in engineering or the Honors College. A strong work ethic allows students to meet their personally defined goals; intrinsic motivation and a sense of purpose helps them reach that full potential. In professional settings, employers generally do not reward exceptional test-taking abilities and consider other personal characteristics to be much more valuable.
As a public research university, the administration of this school must actively engage the forces that foster social injustice. Student and community input must be solicited in crafting the specifics of admissions policies, especially those that restrict participation in especially valuable opportunities. In spite of the fanfare that accompanied Rao’s announcement, these exceptions show that many VCU officials are still apathetic toward the economically and socially disadvantaged.