Test Optional Colleges

An evolving trend in the world of higher education is a swing toward test-optional colleges, meaning schools where students are not required to submit SAT or ACT scores. According to the National Center For Fair and Open Testing, the current count of such institutions is over 850, and is expected to continue growing. The list includes many selective and highly selective colleges, especially private liberal arts colleges, and some state universities. So far no Ivies have gone T.O. (after all, the SAT was originally developed as a means for Harvard to judge applicant scholarship worthiness). The following is a short illustrative list:

  • Bard
  • Bowdoin
  • California State system
  • Denison
  • Franklin & Marshall
  • Lawrence
  • Lewis & Clark
  • Middlebury
  • Rollins
  • University of Arizona
  • University of Kansas

Test optional is good news for students who are bright and hard-working who may not perform well on standardized tests, and it is good news for colleges, as the trend allows them to escape to some extent from the tyranny of publishing ever higher student score ranges to sustain their selectivity profile.

The diminishment of the importance of testing follows from long years of criticism of the cultural bias of such tests and their potential lack of validity. Admissions professionals at many colleges affirm that the strongest predictor of student success in college is performance in a rigorous high school curriculum.

For a comprehensive list of test-optional colleges, see www.fairtest.org.


RECENTLY VISITED: Introducing a Blog “Column,” If You Will

Something I particularly love about my profession of independent educational consulting is the chance to tour many schools over the course of the year in order to be able to give my clients first-hand reports and up-to-date info.  The expectation and necessity of touring and attending campus information sessions is no burden for me; it has long been true in my case, even before I became an IEC, that one of my favorite settings/places to hang in the world is a college campus.

I believe it is very important, although not absolutely essential, for students to conceptually and experientially connect with a college. To my mind, a felt connection with an institution isn’t unlike the “chemistry” of a one-on-one love match.  Social science data show that arranged marriages appear to work, and have statistically better success rates than the passionate “love matches” favored in western nations. Being a social scientist myself, but also being a somewhat typical westerner, I will advocate for both: a college that fits on paper, but also in the heart.

How many students have I known who said something like, “From the moment I set foot on campus, I knew this was the place for me”? And yet I’ve known some, like my friend Seth, who applied as a resident of northern California to Denison University, in rural Ohio (where I then worked), site unseen. Seth’s interest was based solely on the avid recommendation of a fellow employee at the video shop where he worked as a high school student. It proved to be a beautiful match-up, and by the time he graduated with his degree in philosophy, Seth was distinguished as a Denison Presidential Scholar. He followed his success at Denison by becoming a personal assistant to the playwright Tony Kushner in New York City, and eventually became an employee of the New York Times. At present he is completing his MBA at Tuck, the Dartmouth College School of Business.

I digress. Competitive colleges fall all over themselves to make an impression on prospective students. Some even suck up to folks like me, with some degree of IEC “bling” – like the lovely bag of stuff I received from Washington University-St. Louis last November. It even included an oversized pennant … how did they know I collect pennants from the colleges I visit??

Most all colleges offer regular tours and information sessions that profile key institutional factoids. Really enterprising and/or classy colleges offer additional opportunities, like the chance to sit in on a class, stay overnight in a dorm, or meet with a professor or admission staff member one-on-one.

Whatever route you choose, tour as much as possible, and make sure your visits are “official” (noted by the Admissions Office): many colleges view a campus visit as a sign of sincere interest on the part of applicants, and count a visit as a positive element of an application package.

Next Recently Visited: University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS

Lisa Ransdell, Ph.D., is an independent educational consultant in Denver, CO, a 27-year higher education professional, and head of Pinnacle Education Consulting, LLC: http://www.pinnacle-educ.com.

College Ratings and Rankings

Lists and rankings that purport to identify the “best” colleges make me uncomfortable. One reason is that as I scan such lists I can always come up with multiple comparable schools that deserve to be included, but didn’t make the grade for some reason.

Take the popular Loren Pope book, Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges. I’m familiar with many of the profiled schools that impressed the late Mr. Pope as he crisscrossed the nation back in the late 1990s. I worked at one of them, Denison University, in Granville, OH, for ten years. Denison is a superb school, no doubt about it, and I know many alumni who would say that their attendance did indeed change their lives.

I agree with Mr. Pope that small liberal arts colleges offer an emphasis on teaching and personalized attention that isn’t often available at large universities or even Ivy League schools. And yet, why Denison and not Whittier College in CA, why Kalamazoo College in MI and not Coe College in IA?

My dearest friend graduated from Stephens College, a private women’s college in Columbia, MO. I have visited Stephens several times with Betsy, and met many of her delightful alumnae friends. Virtually all of them cite their Stephens experience as pivotal, and all are doing interesting, worthwhile things with their lives and careers. Yet Stephens isn’t featured in Mr. Pope’s book, nor does it receive a high ranking in the most recent list of national liberal arts colleges from U.S. News and World Report.

One of the major bases for the U.S. News rankings is admission selectivity. I am interested in the yearly institutional outcomes, but more for the individual statistics assembled by the researchers than for any certitude that this is indeed a highly valid list, for the worthiness of colleges in my mind is as variable as the range of interests and learning styles of the nation’s prospective college students in any given year.

I very much agree with a quote by Richard H. Hersch, a past college president and present board member of the American Association of Colleges & Universities from a recent Southeast Education Network publication: “Higher Education is the only industry in America where we rank based on input rather than output.” Precisely!

Ahead of official rankings and standout-40 lists I would recommend building personal lists based on program strengths and alumni reviews, digging deeply into reported institutional strengths and making in-person visits whenever possible to check things out first-hand. Colleges also impress me where faculty members are involved in recruiting and wooing students and where they are accessible to prospective students. Let’s tell school stories more often and look at numbers less frequently.