Goodbye to ACT & SAT exams? COVID continues to propel change in higher ed

Written by Christine Cooke

June 4, 2020

Interim meetings at the Utah State Legislature this week and last discussed budget cuts to both K-12 and higher education in Utah – a fallout from the pandemic.

Much like the universities themselves, state committees are looking for ways to keep institutions financially healthy.

Part of that equation will be the budget, and part of it will be higher education’s ability to adapt to a new reality in upcoming years. 

As conversations about higher education continue, here are three ways colleges might adapt to the future.

Dropping college entrance exams

Some universities are changing – or dropping altogether – their entrance exam requirements. ACT Inc. and the College Board (the makers of the ACT and SAT, respectively) announced earlier this spring that they were canceling the administration of the exams until June, which made it difficult for many high schoolers to prepare for college admissions with it. In response, over 50 universities and colleges across the country have dropped the ACT and SAT requirement for fall 2021 admissions. Other schools are making the test optional for admissions. And some advocacy groups are pushing schools who haven’t made the change yet to make the tests optional or suspend the tests altogether.

Notably, the University of California has a long-term plan to do away with the tests – exams are suspended for fall 2021, and it is planning to drop the test entirely by 2024. Here in Utah, we see some similar changes. Brigham Young University’s high-ranking MBA program is offering a GMAT/GRE waiver for admissions, at least for now.

While these trends can be tied to the coronavirus pandemic, they are coming in the wake of an already growing reform shift in college entrance exams. For instance, many law schools – including Ivy League schools – are allowing students to apply for their programs with the GRE in place of the LSAT, the typical law school hurdle.

There are pros and cons to these shifts. Without exams admissions, committees lose a standardized metric with which they can make easy comparisons between applicants. On the other side, critics of the exams say that forgoing dependence on these tests reduces the inequities in costs, access and experience of many candidates and encourages schools to look at applications in a holistic way.

Online schooling continuing

As predicted by many analysts, many schools will continue to use more digital learning than ever before. Some Utah colleges have already announced that they will be reopening campus this fall, but even among those some restrictions and changes will apply. For instance, some are planning to reopen but with reduced class sizes and online classes for students who are especially at risk for infection. Rather than simply returning certain classes back to fully in-person courses, schools are converting some courses into hybrid models: part online and part in-person delivery.

Changes to content delivery are no doubt being accelerated by the pandemic, but they are in many ways far past due. Universities should continue to think through a range of delivery models – not only for public safety reasons, but in order to meet the diverse needs of students, their learning styles, interests, part-time/full-time status, etc.

Financial responses

The reality is everyone – individuals and education institutions – is feeling the financial pinch of the coronavirus.

Universities bring in a chunk of money through students who live in campus housing. Stanford University recently announced that while online teaching will remain the default, it will allow what amounts to two classes of undergraduates to live on campus each quarter. This means students could live on campus for two quarters but must complete one quarter remotely. This gives students an on-campus experience, fills up the housing for the school, and keeps students safer. 

On the other hand, universities need to accommodate the new realities that students face financially. Last year Southern Utah University analyzed how the “tuition plateau” – a policy used by most Utah System of Higher Education institutions to incentivize students to take more credits and graduate sooner – might be hurting online students and found that the school was making more money than necessary off online students to subsidize in-person students, which SUU believed was unfair for the nontraditional, part-time, online student. This kind of institutional thinking will become increasingly important as more students fall into nontraditional categories and are forced to make tough decisions about pursuing college.

University of Utah is likewise innovating to defray college costs for students by offering income share agreements, which means that the school foots part of the bill upfront so students can avoid debt while promising to pay a portion of their income going forward.

In a time when colleges need to respond to the realities of smaller budgets and the need for adaptations in a pandemic, institutions ought to consider additional innovative options that expand access to higher education and make it more affordable. A university that does this would not only justify every tax dollar it receives but would also make a compelling case for getting much higher public investments once good economic times return.

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