- At 51 selective public and private colleges, the share of underrepresented racial minority students remained essentially flat between fall 2020 and the following fall, according to newly released College Board data.
- This status quo came despite a flurry of applications, an 18% gain at those institutions in that time period, reported the College Board, which administers the SAT and Advanced Placement tests.
- However, across a band of highly selective private colleges — those with admit rates below 25% — enrollment of Black, Hispanic and other historically disadvantaged students increased between fall 2020 and fall 2021. These 16 institutions saw enrollment of Black students and Hispanic or Latinx students rise by 19% and 9%, respectively. The colleges also enrolled about 20% more students of two or more races.
The College Board-led research looks at enrollment patterns from fall 2018 to fall 2021, during which time the coronavirus pandemic severely interrupted student recruitment and retention.
Enrollment nosedived, most significantly at two-year institutions. Most recently, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported an almost 5% drop-off in spring 2022 undergraduate enrollment compared to the prior year, amounting to 662,000 fewer students. That compounded prior years of plummeting enrollment.
The spread of the coronavirus also prompted colleges to widely adopt test-optional and test-free policies. The former refers to admissions practices in which students do not have to submit SAT or ACT scores, while the latter means institutions will not review assessment scores for admissions whatsoever.
These policies have persisted even as COVID-19-related restrictions have waned. About 1,700 colleges, including those that have historically never asked for assessment scores, won’t require the SAT or ACT for the fall 2023 enrollment cycle.
The new College Board-helmed research stresses that trends in fall 2021 should not be viewed as “definitively stable in future years given the potential on-going and lasting effects of the pandemic.”
The organization also cautions against making causal connections from the data.
The findings, however, provide one of the first examinations of years when the test-optional movement was pushed into overdrive.
Enrollment of underrepresented students — which the College Board report defines as Black, Hispanic/Latinx, Native American, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and two or more races — only increased by 0.5% each year from fall 2018 to fall 2021.
The research says that means enrollment of those students has stayed basically the same. That’s because enrollment at the 51 colleges studied grew among all student subgroups — except those with poor high school grades — between fall 2020 and fall 2021.
But attendance of White students dropped slightly, about 2%, at the most selective private colleges studied. And the share of low-income and first-generation students at these institutions rose by about 17% and 14%, respectively, in a year.
Jeff Selingo, a prominent higher education pundit, posted on Twitter that the College Board data suggests highly selective private institutions won’t return to testing mandates.
“They are up in most numbers that are institutional priorities for many of them,” Selingo wrote.
Entrance exam critics say the SAT and ACT favor wealthy students who can pay for extensive tutoring, and thus removing the tests as admissions factors would help bolster shares of low-income and minority populations.
The effects of test-optional admissions are being studied. However, past research suggests these practices can modestly improve campus diversity at private colleges. And at the University of Missouri, students who didn’t provide test scores for fall 2021 earned only a slightly lower GPA in their first term compared to peers who did submit them. Both groups of students experienced similar retention rates.