‘Test-Optional’ Policies Possibly Driving Rebound In College Applications Following COVID-19

College admissions are rebounding after COVID-19 and the lockdown-induced recession — possibly due to “test-optional” policies.

In an interview with CNBC, Jenny Rickard — president and CEO of The Common Application, which facilitates admissions for hundreds of American universities — explained that test-optional policies may be lowering barriers for students.

According to CNBC:

The Common App estimated that between Nov. 2019 and Nov. 2020, applications from first-generation students and low-income students who qualify to have their application fees waived decreased by approximately 10% — while the number of college applicants overall decreased by less than 4%.

Most recent estimates from Common App suggest college applications are increasing. As of November 16, 2021, the number of college applicants had increased 13%, and total applications submitted have increased 22%, compared to the previous year. And first-generation students comprised 27% of the total applicant pool.

As many high schoolers were forced into virtual schooling by school districts and state governments last year, universities waived requirements for submitting SAT, ACT, or other standardized test scores. However, many schools have softened their testing policies beyond the admissions cycle immediately impacted by COVID-19.

Rickard referred to this reality while explaining the hike in applications:

Rickard says it is possible some of the increase in applications could be attributed to students who took time away from school to avoid being on campus during earlier phases of the pandemic. But she says there are also other variables at play. For one, she says standardized test-optional policies, which were adopted by a wide range of colleges and universities during the pandemic helped lower barriers for applicants.

As reflected by lagging enrollment rates, more applications have not translated into more seats at universities and other postsecondary institutions.

According to a report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 7.8% fewer students are now participating in undergraduate programs since 2019, with public two-year schools and private for-profit four-year schools seeing the largest declines. Between fall 2019 and fall 2021, enrollment for males dipped by 10.2%, while enrollment for females fell by 6.8%.

Most of the losses have been concentrated in less selective universities. Meanwhile, highly selective four-year programs have seen modest enrollment growth since 2019. Nevertheless, enrollment for men has diminished in all categories — with the exception of private nonprofit four-year institutions.

As the college admissions and enrollment landscape changes, a group of former university administrators, professors, authors, and entrepreneurs are launching a new institution called the University of Austin — which will be devoted to protecting academic freedom.

“In the liberal university, open inquiry and debate about the world were prized as values in their own right,” explained co-founder and venture capitalist Joe Lonsdale in an op-ed for the New York Post. “Our society recognized this by endowing universities with public money, trust, and power. In modern universities, these values have been lost, as has the legitimacy they impart. Robust debate on important topics is increasingly rare, and uniformity of viewpoint is increasingly demanded. Universities have been captured by new ideologies of intolerance that order subservience and quash those who think differently.”

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