Meet the new Harvard, same as the old Harvard

A standardized test.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

Standardized tests may be a pandemic casualty. Since 2020, a growing number of universities have stopped requiring applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores, ostensibly because students are finding it more difficult to prepare, and sit for, the exams. This week, Harvard took a step toward making that permanent; The Washington Post reports that the proverbial "college in Boston" will extend its test-optional policy for four more years.

Public health considerations aren't the only motive. For years, critics have argued the tests are at best irrelevant to academic success and at worst biased against Black and Hispanic applicants. Aligned with the fashionable racial justice movement, colleges would like credit for reform without admitting that they've engaged in discrimination. Going test-optional is one way to send the right message.

But even observers sympathetic to that cause are skeptical. The main reason Harvard and its counterparts are dropping the test is that it's in their interest to do so.

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Because a high score on the SAT or ACT is a perceived obstacle to admission, applications tend to increase when selective institutions stop requiring scores. That sounds nice — until you remember that increased demand for the same number of seats means the acceptance rate drops (Harvard's is currently around 3.5 percent). A low acceptance rate, in turn, contributes to a high ranking from U.S. News & World Report or others raters, which encourages yet more applications. It's a virtuous cycle for universities, that count on rankings to inspire donors as well undergraduate applications. But it's not great for aspiring students.

Not requiring standardized tests also reduces the amount of information about admissions standards that is available to the public. This week, Princeton announced that it will begin withholding data about prospective students' admission rates by SAT score range and average GPA that is used to release. The university claims that it wants to reduce applicants' "anxiety." Maybe so. But the embargo also deflects scrutiny of practices that can attract legal challenges as well as media criticism.

Above all, test-optional admissions is about control. If colleges don't have to consider commensurable, publicly available measures of achievement, admissions offices will find it easier to apply subjective criteria. That sometimes will benefit applicants from "underrepresented" minorities whose admission might have been difficult to justify using scores alone. In other — and perhaps more — cases, it will benefit rich or well-connected families who know how to accumulate evidence of leadership, athletic ability, or other desirable non-academic qualities, and which amounts to simply buying their way in.

The elevation of political sympathy, cultural status, and donor preferences over demonstrated academic achievement is a repudiation of meritocratic aspirations that American higher education publicly embraced, although never consistently practiced, around the middle of the 20th century. For the same reason, the decision to do away with standardized test requirements marks a return to the historical norm, by which elite colleges were more concerned with students' family backgrounds and social potential than with their knowledge.

Supporters of test-optional admissions want to believe they're unraveling a legacy of WASP privilege that prevents higher education from reaching its democratic potential. In fact, they're rebuilding it in a different guise.

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