The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion My college stopped relying heavily on the SAT. Enrollment of students of color climbed.

A student prepares for the SAT test. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Shawn Abbott is vice provost at Temple University and was previously the dean of admissions at New York University and the director of admissions at Stanford University.

I’m a college admissions officer, and I’m as eager as everyone else to see the end of the covid-19 pandemic. The coronavirus has thrown campus life into chaos, and the college experience for many students has been bleak. And yet, for people in my line of work, the pandemic has come with one silver lining: the near decimation of the SAT and ACT.

In spring 2020, with limited availability of standardized tests, my university, Temple, and many others were forced to quickly reimagine their admissions processes and reevaluate what we value. By the time applications started rolling in that fall, we had models in place that weighted test scores much more lightly, which leaned more heavily into evaluations based on overall academic performance.

Temple University had in recent years already begun experimenting with “test optional” admission, fueling a more holistic process. But the pandemic rapidly accelerated growth in the number of students submitting applications without testing. Before the coronavirus shutdown, more than 8,000 students applied without submitting test scores; for fall 2021, that number surged to just shy of 23,000 students.

The result: Temple’s class of 2025 arrived last fall slightly larger and with virtually the same GPA (3.46) as our previous class (3.48), and with very little change in first-generation students (nearly 30 percent) or the population of students on Pell grants (a similar percentage). But strikingly, students of color took a significant leap in representation.

Freed from using SATs to make decisions, and without using any affirmative action measures, Temple’s student of color community grew to 45 percent — up from 42 percent just a year ago and 39 percent the year before that. Both Black and Latinx students were admitted in record numbers.

How did we accomplish this?

Though Temple was test-optional before the pandemic, we were still admittedly hooked on test scores. We loved them. What admissions officer didn’t? They made decision-making fast and easy, and enrollment behavior predictable. We used them to make admissions decisions and to “reward” students with merit scholarships — enticing them to think twice before spending $80,000 to attend one of our rivals.

As covid-19 gripped the world, it became apparent that those scores were not coming. If we wanted 5,000 new students, we knew we had to get cracking devising new ways to evaluate candidates for admission, our honors program and those scholarships that help us steal a few admits from the likes of Northeastern and Tulane.

We moved quickly to take stock of every data point we could capture on our applicants. We devoured research to understand how to improve access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. We mobilized machine learning to capture data and predict enrollment. We debated how much to rely on qualitative essays and recommendation letters.

Then we got even more specific. We developed models to better predict whether an aspiring engineer was ready for college math, and whether a theater candidate’s audition score might indicate that we were about to enroll the next Colman Domingo. We paid more attention to cultural competence and favored students who didn’t bail on foreign language in their senior year.

As we finalized our selection process, our confidence in leaning away from the SAT and ACT only strengthened.

As for those merit scholarships: With fewer SAT scores, we still rewarded students for their academic records, but we also sweetened the pot for students who had a part-time job or were heavily involved in clubs and organizations outside the classroom. We increased awards for first-generation students. If you lived in one of Philadelphia’s most impoverished neighborhoods, we might have even vaporized your tuition entirely.

Although for years we’ve been brewing and cooking dozens of initiatives to make Temple a more ethnically, geographically and socioeconomically diverse place, moving the needle hasn’t been easy — until now. Simply put, no other change to our admissions process has done more to shift the demographic composition of our entering class than extinguishing a requirement such as the SAT and ACT, and instead zeroing in on each student’s academic record and the other attributes they bring to the table.

I can’t say I’m thankful for the pandemic. And I’m not sure we’ve seen the last of SAT scores, even if Harvard has put them on hiatus and the entire University of California system is refusing to consider them entirely.

But at the very least, here in Philly, we are going to move forward with admitting one more class — unrestrained by the SAT.