Did the Pandemic Revolutionize Higher Ed Admissions?

NACAC 2022 tackled test-free and race-conscious admissions in its first post-pandemic conference.

6 minutes
By: Nicole Shupe
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Houston, TX— The COVID-19 pandemic may be the single most important event to revolutionize higher education since the advent of the Scholastic Achievement Test (SAT). Ironically, it was the SAT under fire during the September 22-24 National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) conference in Houston, as panels tackled test-free and race-conscious admissions, as well as other challenges facing higher ed leadership in a post-pandemic landscape.

“The pandemic impacted the admissions process in a number of different ways,” said Jay Jacobs, vice provost for enrollment management at University of Vermont, who conducted a session on post-pandemic admissions. According to Jacobs, many schools, including the University of Vermont, added virtual recruitment components as the pandemic progressed over two years, such as information sessions and virtual chats with counseling staff, admissions officers, and current students. These increased touchpoints are one tool to enable admissions officers to better know students who may no longer be represented by as many data points as they were previously.

“One thing that is continuing, many [high school] students did not have grades in the spring of 2020 — either  schools decided to a pass/fail option that year or things like that, and that is a golf ball that goes through the proverbial snake for four years,” said Jacobs. 

The impacts of the pandemic will be felt for years to come, and admissions officers will be vital in finding context for the missing data, including asking for detailed letters of recommendation, essays on the application, or additional information sections.  

Is the SAT obsolete?

Spread over three days, the 2022 NACAC Resilience conference brought leaders together on a wide range of topics, including trends for essay writing and recommendation letters and tips for high school counselors to facilitate college admissions. However, the need to address disparity in the admissions process was a frequent topic of discussion.

“The most efficient way to eliminate disparities is to remove the tests [SAT and ACT], which assert the disparities among students more than any other factor,” said Jay Rosner. As the executive director of the Princeton Review Foundation, a non-profit organization that assists underserved students on admissions tests, Rosner is familiar with the decades-long discussion about promoting equity in higher ed. 

“So many people wonder what schools will ‘replace’ the test with, but as the University of California system found, the other 13 determinants used by the UC system are more effective in determining a student’s fit to any college,” said Rosner. 

“I would take four months of coursework and how you did in that course any day over the four hours that you tested on a random Saturday afternoon.”

 

According to recent data by Fair Test, more than 1,800 higher education institutions will be test-free or test-optional for the fall 2023 admissions cycle. By comparison, there were only 1,050 schools in 2019 offering test-optional admissions, making it hard to discount the pandemic’s impact on the SAT/ACT requirement for admissions.

“I think the test-optional admissions is here to stay and I think that it is better for those students for whom the standardized tests do not always assess,” said Jacobs. “I would take four months of coursework and how you did in that course any day over the four hours that you tested on a random Saturday afternoon.”

As more schools become test optional, it is imperative for institutions in higher ed to be transparent about how the admissions process is changing, including who is being admitted without disclosing their test scores and who is benefiting from the change. 

“At UVM, we are sitting, for two years in a row, with the highest retention rates in university history,” said Jacobs. Jacobs felt that additional information and research would be needed to determine which factors contributed the most to this retention, but the trend is positive.

Will SCOTUS Shatter the Glass? 

For low-income, first-generation and refugee students, as well as students of color and older students, the pandemic highlighted inequities that higher ed leaders are eager to rectify. During the NACAC conference, a recurring discussion centered on the two race-conscious admission cases the Supreme Court will consider on October 31, 2022: Students for Fair Admissions v. University of NC (21-707) and Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard (20-1199)

“There are three scenarios for these cases: The glass is half full; the glass is half empty; and the glass is shattered,” said Marie Bigham, founder and executive director of ACCEPT, who co-chaired The Future of Race-Conscious Admissions: Update on the UNC and Harvard Cases session with Rosner on Friday, September 23. According to Bigham and Rosner, a glass-half-full approach would be rulings that are so limited that they cannot be applied to other scenarios, while a glass-half-empty approach would be rulings that may be applied elsewhere but that are easily understood with little ambiguity.

It is the glass-shattered scenario that frightens Bigham the most. “In light of other rulings by this court, they could shatter the glass and undo 50 years of civil rights,” she said. “The worst case scenario is a decision that ties admissions professionals’ hands so that they cannot consider race or diversity in any way.”

Until the Supreme Court’s decisions are released in 2023, admissions professionals are attempting to find solutions that are flexible enough to allow modification because, as noted by Bigham and Rosner, the regulatory aspect will take effect quickly after the decision is made. 

“But we can’t be too stringent in our planning because, if we choose the wrong scenario, it would be worse than having no plan,” said Rosner. 

Rosner and Bigham agree that education on the issues is the most important tool moving forward. “Our task in the face of issues is to educate so people understand,” said Rosner. “I agree race ‘should not matter’, but if you say race ‘does not matter’, that is incorrect.”

Where Are You Working Now?

The official admissions process may have been discussed in sessions, but the transition of long-term higher ed professionals to private consultancy firms was the topic of conversation during informal meet-ups in the exhibition hall and after hours. 

“I saw people speaking far more openly about the intensive labor of the job in all the different sectors of admissions; most of our conversations have hinged usually on how do we help students—admission-driven gaslighting, we all work our tails off, but it is for the kids,” said Bigham.

A shift to working from home after commuting long hours to an office has shown many higher ed professionals that the traditional ways of working may not be the most efficient or effective for the modern era, resulting in large numbers of higher ed professionals changing roles or leaving institutions completely. 

“I am happy that, as a profession, we are having much more honest conversations about the toll of the labor required to do this job, and frankly, the low pay that is associated with this job,” said Bigham, who thought such a discussion would not have been welcomed or well received pre-pandemic. 

As impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to permeate higher education, admissions professionals will be tasked with balancing the modern and the traditional to find the best fit for students, parents, institutions and staff. In light of these changes, the post-pandemic admissions process may be test-free, race-conscious and more flexible than ever before.

Nicole Shupe

Nicole Shupe

Senior Editor

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