Elite colleges admitted more underrepresented students this year, early reports suggest

As students weigh college admissions offers ahead of the May 1 decision deadline, early data indicate that the nation’s top schools could welcome an especially diverse class this year. The shift, The New York Times reports, reflects an unprecedented college admissions season shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic, widespread adoption of test-optional policies, and growing racial awareness in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

Related: Could this unprecedented admissions cycle bring lasting change? >

At New York University, 20 percent of this year’s admitted class would be the first in their family to graduate from college, up from 15 percent last year. Twenty-nine percent of admitted students are Black or Hispanic, up two points from last year. Harvard University reported a 3.2 percentage-point increase in the proportion of admitted students who are Black, while the University of Southern California reported a 2.5 and 3-point increase in Black and Latinx student representation, respectively.

Test-optional policies spark application surge

College admissions officials’ decision to decrease reliance on standardized test scores during this year of SAT/ACT disruptions “was most likely the most important factor in encouraging minority applicants,” the Times writes. Critics of requiring test scores for admission have long asserted that the exams create unnecessary hurdles for underrepresented students, who often have limited access to tutors and test-prep resources.

New research published in the American Educational Research Journal further reinforces this assertion, showing an increase in enrollment among students receiving Pell Grants and those from underrepresented racial/ethnic backgrounds at colleges that adopted test-optional policies between 2005 and 2015.

According to Common App, a nonprofit that runs an online platform used by millions of students to apply to college, less than half of applicants submitted standardized test scores this year, compared with 77 percent last year. Applicants from lower-income families and those who identified as first-generation, Black, Hispanic, and Native American were especially likely to omit the scores.

Students from those underrepresented groups say the movement away from standardized test scores gave them the green light to apply to more selective institutions. “I feel like this year gave students a lot of confidence to apply to schools they really want to,” Akosa Obianwu, a Maryland high school senior, told The Washington Post. Obianwu, the son of Nigerian immigrants, says he believes that “when you take away the score, [colleges] look more at the student.”

Admissions officials at elite schools felt the change acutely as applications poured in. The University of California, Los Angeles, for instance, says it saw a 48 percent increase and 33 percent increase in applications from African-American and Hispanic students, respectively, and a 28 percent increase in freshman applications overall.

This admissions season was “definitely the craziest of all my 36 years, without a doubt,” says Lisa Przekop, director of admissions at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which saw its application volume grow by 16 percent. Przekop told NPR that, because the pandemic disrupted everything from testing to grades, clubs, and sports, the reading process became “much more nuanced.” She saw greater ethnic diversity and diversity of experience in the applicant pool—and notes that student essays overwhelmingly recounted the stress of the past year.

Seeing the moment ‘through the eyes of all these young people’

“You could tell the story of America through the eyes of all these young people, and how they dealt with the times, Black Lives Matter, the wave of unemployment, and the uncertainties of the political moment, wanting to make a difference,” MJ Knoll-Finn, senior vice president for enrollment management at New York University, told the Times.

Students say the racial reckoning of the past year influenced their college pursuits. “Those protests really did inspire me,” says Janna Curbelo, a senior at a New York City public high school who would be the first in her family to attend college. “It made it seem like the times were sort of changing, in a way.”

Higher ed experts say the true implications for diversity on college campuses will become clear only after students make their enrollment decisions. Financial aid availability, institutions’ outreach, and the pandemic’s trajectory all will shape the final outcome. “I’m not sure I’ve ever gone into a summer so uncertain about what’s going to happen,” said Greg W. Roberts, dean of admission at the University of Virginia.

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