Could this unprecedented admissions cycle bring lasting change?

Admissions teams at the nation’s most selective institutions are facing uncharted territory this year as they attempt to review a record number of applications—many without test scores—to shape the Class of 2025. The process, The Wall Street Journal writes, “may prove the most chaotic selection experiment in American higher education since the end of World War II.” Experts say it also could mark the start of a new era in how colleges evaluate applicants—and who ultimately comes to campus.

The pandemic has upended several hallmarks of the traditional admissions process. Some applicants’ grade point averages reflect a semester or more of pass-fail evaluation; others’ extracurricular activities took a hit when COVID-19 forced widespread shutdowns.

In addition, the pivot to virtual recruiting has enabled schools to break down geographic barriers and connect with a broader array of students. At New York University, this new approach has yielded more applications from the Midwest, from Black and Latinx students, and from countries like Egypt and Kenya, says MJ Knoll-Finn, senior vice president for enrollment management and student success. She adds that the university expects to continue its virtual outreach alongside in-person recruitment well beyond the pandemic.

Test-optional policies prompt surge of applications

Still, “the single biggest X-factor this year” are standardized tests, the Journal says. Given how few testing opportunities were available this past year, more than 1,600 four-year colleges and universities made it optional for applicants to submit standardized test scores this cycle—and many have already extended those test-optional policies.

With that hurdle removed, highly selective schools have been deluged with applications. Harvard University, for instance, saw a 42 percent year-over-year increase in applications; New York University’s were up 17 percent.

At Dartmouth University, which saw a 33 percent increase in applications this year, Lee Coffin, vice provost for enrollment and dean of admissions and financial aid, says the test-optional policy has removed a data point once considered crucial in selecting Dartmouth students. The change “is calling on us to walk the talk” about holistically evaluating applicants, Coffin told the Journal.

In the absence of SAT/ACT scores and apples-to-apples GPAs, admissions officers say they expect to rely even more heavily on more qualitative feedback, such as teacher recommendations and “signs of intellectual curiosity” this year.

Related: Digital recruitment, test-optional policies: Stopgaps for COVID-19 or lasting change?

Higher education experts are wondering whether this reorientation and decreased reliance on test scores—a metric that tends to favor wealthier students—could help reduce barriers for low-income students. Angel Pérez, chief executive of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, a professional association, told the Journal he’s “deeply optimistic” that the pandemic will lead to lasting change.

Months before the dust settles

While many colleges are preparing to communicate admissions decisions in the coming few weeks, incoming freshman classes won’t truly crystallize until late summer or early fall, according to the Journal. In addition to a complicated glut of applications, colleges are facing ongoing uncertainty about the pandemic’s trajectory, its effect on families’ economic situation, and its implications for international students.

The models typically used to predict which admitted students will enroll will be less reliable this year, colleges say. As a result, admissions teams may need to turn to their wait lists early, often, and for an extended period to finalize the incoming class.

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