Survey shows how test-optional policies swayed students’ college pursuits

A new survey by the education consulting company EAB examines how the COVID-19 pandemic affected college application activity among members of the high school class of 2021. Of the 4,848 “Generation Z” students who participated in the 2022 New College Freshman Survey, 15% reported they applied to colleges specifically because they had test-optional policies, an approach implemented by many U.S. colleges and universities during the COVID-19 pandemic, Diverse Issues in Higher Education reports.

These policies were particularly significant to students of color, with 24% of Black students and 21% of Latinx students reporting they applied to a college because of its test-optional application process. Test-optional policies were less influential for white and Asian/Asian-American students; only 12% and 15%, respectively, said they applied because of test-optional policies.

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If those rates continue to grow, they could push higher education toward broader adoption of test-optional policies, says Dr. Darrell Lovell, an assistant professor at West Texas A&M University. However, Lovell, an advocate for expanding test-optional policies, says that more data and time is needed to confirm that test-optional policies actually lead to more diverse campuses. A previous study spanning 2005 to 2016 found that test-optional policies had a minimal effect on students from historically underrepresented groups, prompting just a 1% gain in the share of Pell Grant recipients and underrepresented racially/ethnically minoritized students.

Lovell also cautions that a diverse applicant pool may not lead to a diverse student population. “Students saying that [they’re] more likely to apply to a school that’s test-optional is different than enrolling in that institution,” Lovell explains.

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Growing concerns about colleges costs

Along with test-optional policies, college costs continued to be a top issue for prospective college students, according to the EAB survey. Thirty-six percent of respondents said they selected their college because of its “affordable tuition,” up slightly from 35% in 2020. For students who did not enroll in their top-choice school, college costs were their top concern, with 37% responding that their first-choice school “was too expensive.” Among students who opted out of college, 32% of Black students and 35% of Latinx students said they didn’t think they could afford it. 

Cost-conscious Gen Z students also said they would be more willing to visit a college of interest if they were given financial incentives. According to the survey, 64% of students said they would be interested in visiting a college that offered enrolled students a $1,000 “bonus” scholarship, while over a third said they would visit if offered school apparel (39%), a $100 gift card (39%), or paid travel or $250 travel reimbursement (38%).

Recruitment strategies

In its report on the survey, EAB suggests five strategies for engaging prospective Gen Z college students and their families:

  1. Heighten web presence. College websites played an outsized role for students at the beginning of the pandemic when campus visits and college fairs were inaccessible. Seventy-five percent of respondents to EAB’s 2022 survey attended at least one virtual tour, compared to 49% in 2020, and virtual tours expanded access for lower-income students. 
  2. Invest in parent communication streams. Colleges should prioritize communicating with parents early in the recruitment process, starting in a student’s sophomore year of high school. 
  3. Personalize marketing strategies for students. Emails and paper mail from colleges continue to be effective communication channels.
  4. Reach out to cost-conscious students. EAB suggests schools encourage all students to submit FAFSA forms and communicate with students who may be eligible for need-based aid.
  5. Promote vibrancy of campus life. As Gen Z students recover from pandemic-induced changes to their academic and social lives, EAB encourages higher education institutions to create immersive experiences of college life for prospective students.
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