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History and Background: College Access & Admissions

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Back to College Access & Admissions

Before the Admissions Office

Until the 1950s, most colleges didn’t have an admissions office to speak of. There were no admissions deans, no viewbooks and no campus tours. Instead, professors would look over how students did in subjects like Latin and Greek prior to applying to college, and make admissions decisions based on their performance in those areas. Students typically applied to one school, and many colleges admitted anyone who graduated from high school.

Colleges we refer to today as “elite” depended heavily on feeder high schools, usually boarding schools, where officials understood the academic standards and knew the student body. Harvard, Yale and Princeton had an arrangement they called the “ABC” system. Applicants from feeder schools received a preliminary assessment by professors, and were awarded a rating of A, B or C. An A was a clear admit; B meant admission was uncertain, and C was a likely deny.

Admissions Testing

While individual colleges often had their own admissions tests (often requiring, say, students to demonstrate knowledge of Latin or Greek) in the 18th and 19th centuries, a group of Eastern private colleges combined in the early 20th century to form the College Board and create a common standardized essay exam. In 1926, inspired by the introduction of the IQ test, the group developed a test they called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, which they initially used to award “merit” scholarships, not admissions offers. But slowly, private colleges started to consider test scores when making admissions decisions. How slowly? Even into the 1950s, three decades after the SAT was introduced, fewer than a quarter of high school students took the test, and most of them did so right before graduation.

At the time, proponents of admissions tests argued that using the SAT made admissions more progressive and fair. One president of Harvard, for example, saw the SAT as a great equalizer, a test that would allow Ivy League universities to diversify their student bodies based on intelligence rather than family connections.

The student admissions market slowly began to shift in the 1960s. The number of institutions requiring the SAT or the ACT sextupled from a paltry 300 in 1960 to more than 1,800 by 1980. The National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, first introduced to high school sophomores in the 1950s, was renamed the PSAT, and allowed students (and colleges) to get an early read on their abilities and understand how they stacked up to their peers nationally.

The Birth of the Modern Admissions System

The idea that colleges should consider more than grades and test scores in accepting students — so-called holistic admissions — grew out of a backlash against the effectiveness of admissions tests in creating new opportunities for previously shut-out students, particularly Jewish students, and thus causing uncomfortable new competition for the elite colleges’ traditional market of wealthy, white Christians.

So, elite colleges first started the system of requesting letters of recommendation and considering extracurricular activities, as well as the geographic location of applicants.

In the early 1970s, Jack Maguire took over as admissions dean at Boston College, and the former physics professor noted that a baby bust in the late 1970s portended a looming shortage of potential freshmen able to pay the school’s then-high expense of more than $5,000 a year. In 1976, Maguire, writing in Boston College’s alumni magazine, coined the term “enrollment management” to describe the school’s strategy of mining lots of data and combining marketing, financial aid and admissions policies to recruit, enroll and retain enough qualified tuition-paying students to keep the college in the black.

As befitting a scientist, his approach was driven by data — demographics, surveys and historical records of who accepted which financial aid offers. This changed the way many colleges awarded financial aid. Instead of simply awarding aid to students based on their needs, or standard scholarships to students with the best qualifications, colleges increasingly used “merit aid” as an inducement to families looking for bragging rights, and discounts on tuition to lure students to enroll.

To serve the growing number of colleges competing for applicants — many seeking to boast about the large number of applicants they had rejected — the purveyors of the admissions tests began selling the names and personal information of prospective students in 1972. A student’s information is sold, on average, 18 times over their high school career. Some names have been purchased more than 70 times — all at a typical cost of 45 cents a name.

Ramping up the competition, the creation of the Common Application arrived in 1980, which made it much easier for students to apply to many schools. By 2017, 36 percent of college applicants had applied to at least seven colleges, compared to just 10 percent of students doing so in 1995.

In response to increasingly evident disparities in access to selective colleges, many colleges started adding affirmative action policies to their “holistic” evaluations of applications so they could address systemic racism and other disadvantages.

Schools using holistic admissions broadened the focus of the admissions process from test scores and grades to include extracurricular activities and more subjective factors such as essays and recommendations. But that process opened the door to additional biases. Research has shown, for example, that admissions officers, on average, give Asian students lower scores on factors such as “personality” than students from other backgrounds. This has prompted several high-profile anti-affirmative action lawsuits, most notably against Harvard University.

Test-Optional Admissions

In 1969, Bowdoin College was the first institution in the U.S. to make the submission of test scores optional for admission, but few other schools initially followed suit.

The test-optional movement started to finally take off in the 1990s, fueled by several motives: Studies began to show that the admission tests heavily favored white, wealthy students. Second, studies showed that the tests only predicted freshman-year GPA well, not necessarily overall college success. And finally, (and cynics would argue, most importantly), many less-selective colleges found that they were able to attract more applicants when they waived the testing requirement.

Still, most “elite” colleges required admissions test scores until 2018, when the highly selective University of Chicago, in the U.S. News & World Report top 10, went test optional.

Then, in 2020, COVID-19 forced more than 600 additional colleges, including the entire Ivy League, to go test optional.

As more colleges begin to go back to in-person activities following the rollout of successful vaccines, some institutions, such as the University of California system, have taken the opportunity to consider longer-term test-optional and test-blind admissions policies. Reporters covering this beat may find it helpful to continue tracking this developing situation to mine for story ideas that may predict the future of college admissions trends.

Updated June 2021.