How many students are affected by the test optional controversy?

Sizing the issue

The ongoing debate about test optional admissions — whether colleges should adopt the practice and how effective standardized tests are in helping with admissions — has become fairly intense in the last few years. But how many students does the issue really affect? Below, we try and size the issue.

Students beginning an undergrad program each year


All numbers are 2019 IPEDS results to reflect the pre-COVID state of play. 3,500 institutions included in cut.

  • The vast majority of students beginning Bachelor’s and Associate programs in 2019 did so full-time.  This is a good thing because first-year part-time students have high drop out rates – fewer than half are still in their program the next academic year.
  • The number of people beginning certifications is likely to be much higher than this as the IPEDS data only includes Title IV reporting schools.  The number includes certifications for cosmetology and other technical skills.  Many of those pursuing certifications already hold a college degree.


The ACT offices in Iowa City


How many enroll in colleges requiring applications?

  • About 2/3 of first-year full-timers enroll a school with an application process.

Public or private?

  • About 2/3 of full-time students accepted through an application process enter a public institution.
  • We noted elsewhere that private colleges had been losing enrollment since 2015.

Certain private colleges are open enrollment so this chart includes students not included in the count of selective private attendees cited above.


The College Board offices in Reston, Virginia



What does enrollment look like across different selectivity ranges?

  • A total of 405,000 students began full-time Bachelor’s programs at colleges admitting under 50% of applicants (2019).
  • Of course, more students apply to than enroll in colleges admitting under 50% of applicants.

74% of the 1.6 million full-time entering students attend a school admitting over 50% of its applicants.  Are standardized test results important to these more lightly-selective programs?

Do less selective schools need board scores?


One of the unfortunate obstacles certain less financially-secure institutions face are perpetual resource constraints. Public universities generally have lower enrollment staffing levels to begin with; this Ruffalo study finds that public universities typically employ 1 full-time enrollment employee for every 181 incoming students, a much lower ratio than private competitors. Wayne State, a regional public in Detroit, is particularly thinly staffed, with an enrollment staff ratio about half that average level.


Take the case of Wayne State University in Detroit where, before Covid, high school GPA and standardized test scores were used as a cutoff to hack 18,000 applications down to a number the university’s eight admissions counselors could manage. “It was just easier,” says senior director of admissions Ericka M. Jackson.

(Quote from Amber Dance’s “Pencils Down”, Knowable Magazine, 2021.)


18,000 applications and 8 admissions staff! Despite its extreme resource constraints, the university, which accepted 73% of applicants into its 13,000-student undergrad program in 2019, went test optional in 2020 as in-person test-taking became impossible. But it also decided that high school GPA plus the Common App materials were not sufficient to winnow the pool down to the 3/4 of candidates accepted and requested additional materials for test optional applications. From Dance’s article:


In 2020, Jackson’s team changed tack. They made test scores optional and asked applicants for more materials, including short essays, lists of activities and evaluation by a high school guidance counselor. Assessing the extra material required assistance from temporary staff and other departments, but it was an eye-opening experience, Jackson says. “I literally am sometimes in tears reading the essays from students, what they’ve overcome … the GPA can’t tell you that.”


We had pointed to how MIT’s decision to again require board scores was motivated by unmanageable application volumes. Wayne State’s situation after going test optional also points to an unmanageable near-emergency caused not by more applications but by the extra time needed to review each one. The university continues to be test optional but, whatever it chooses to do in the future, one can imagine many schools in this situation going back to requiring testing for efficiency’s sake.


Test optionality is an important issue for schools at all selectivity levels.


Wayne State’s metro campus in 2018

Test optional faces headwinds

  • This isn’t just an elite school issue: It matters to over 1 million first-time applicants each cycle — before even considering transferring students — and a large number of programs.
  • Test optionality makes enrollment work more difficult: The example from Wayne State points to the added time and money needed to process no-test applications but the difficulties it causes extend to the more strategic aspect of enrollment, such as the uncertainty Boston University encountered with its yield, linked to non-testing students. This is even before considering the second-order effects of test-optionality leading students to apply to more schools.
  • Less selective schools, especially publics, have limited enrollment resources: While higher ed has a tendency to look at schools like MIT as bellwethers, it’s maybe better to focus on the Wayne States of the world, understaffed and with high admit rates. Will these lightly-selective institutions backtrack from test optionality? And what does “holistic admissions”, a phrase that sure sounds good in the abstract, mean when enrollment staff are reviewing literally thousands of applications apiece?
  • No defectors: Because students apply to so many places, if even a significant minority of schools defect from optionality and require board scores, it will force wide swathes of applicants to test. Hence, the public outcry over MIT’s publicized decision. Test optionality must be close to uniform across higher ed or most students will just resume taking them and the consumer benefits of optionality – less testing for students – will disappear.
  • That’s the theory. Let’s see how things develop in real life. These sites can be used to track the situation:
    • FairTest catalogs test optional colleges in the US with a list last updated in May.
    • The College Board typically releases its statistics showing how many students took SAT in the most recent graduating class every September.
    • ACT typically does its reporting in October.


Read this post and others at our CTAS Higher Ed Business blog on Substack.