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734: The Campus Tour Has Been Cancelled

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

OK, Lorraine, 17 years old. Wants to be a dentist, which I didn't even know that was a thing anybody wants in high school, but shows what I know. Apparently, there are armies of teenagers who want to put on a white coat and enlist in the international war between human beings and placque.

Lorraine

I was in Saturday Academy, which is NYU's dentistry program for high schoolers. It was virtual.

Ira Glass

What was the best thing about that? What did they do? What was your favorite part of it?

Lorraine

My favorite part was filling cavities. They sent a fake tooth model thing. Like, decay on the teeth, you had to scrape it off. It was like I was an actual dentist. They sent the tools. It was fun. It was so much fun.

Ira Glass

So last spring, junior year, Lorraine started to get serious with her college applications. She's a good student, great GPA. But she had a problem. Her dream colleges-- Cornell, Columbia, NYU-- they all wanted SAT scores 200 or 300 points higher than Lorraine's SAT scores. But then, Lorraine got this crazy break. All over the country, SATs were being canceled because of coronavirus. There was no safe way to fill a room with high school kids to take the test. And colleges started to change their admissions requirements.

Lorraine

So I heard that a lot of schools were going test optional. Especially on TikTok, that's where I would see everything-- college updates, test optional updates.

Ira Glass

Test optional means the SAT test is optional. You can apply without submitting SAT scores-- or ACT scores for that matter. If Lorraine's dream schools were to go test optional, it would magically vaporize the only obstacle standing between her and them and a life drilling into the molars of her fellow citizens. But most of the early schools to go test optional seemed to be out west, she said. All three of her top picks were in New York. Every day she would go online to check the lists of test optional schools.

Lorraine

And I would keep refreshing, keep looking to see every single day, see if any new schools were added.

Ira Glass

And were they changing every day?

Lorraine

Yeah, I feel like two, three schools were added every single day.

And then I remember it was spring break because I dedicated my whole spring break to studying for SATs. And then I remember I got the notification, a little bell from Gmail from Columbia University because I signed up for their mailing list. And it was like, oh, yeah, we're going test optional. And I was studying. I had the SAT book open. So I threw it across my bed. My mom was the first person I told. So I ran to her. I was like, [SPANISH]-- like, I don't have to take the SATs, and stuff. I gave her a hug. We jumped. And then I called my friend, and I started screaming on the phone. We started dancing.

Ira Glass

Oh my god. It's like you got hit by lightning or something, but in a good way.

Lorraine

Yeah. I thought that maybe now without the SAT, I kind of have a chance. I have a shot. Like, shoot for the stars. This is my year.

Ira Glass

She had been planning to apply to 10 or 11 colleges. Now she upped the number to 17. And all across the country, there were lots of kids doing that. But the pandemic has upended college admissions in so many ways that a huge swath of the country's high school seniors are having the opposite experience from Lorraine's. They're not applying to schools, falling through the cracks, ghosting their counselors who can't just grab them in the hallway or pull them from class this year. Having tried everything else in response, a few weeks ago in Fort Worth, Texas, high school counselor Valerie Gonzalez and a couple of the counselors she supervises hit the streets with a list of students' addresses to try to catch them at their homes.

Valerie Gonzalez

We're pretty nervous, too, because we've never done anything like this before. So we'll see.

Ira Glass

Valerie's 25, the first in her family to go to a four-year college, placed as a counselor in this high school by a nonprofit called College Advising Corps to encourage kids to be the first in their families. And she's pretty hardcore about it.

Valerie Gonzalez

Yeah, I've actually definitely cried with students before when I've kind of told them, why are you doing this to yourself? You have an opportunity, especially even just to go to community college. Please do something to better your life.

Ira Glass

She throws herself into a job with such energetic thoroughness that before going door to door this morning, she made little goodie bags to give out with face masks and stickers that she made by hand. She and another counselor check an address and walk up to a door.

[KNOCKING]

[DOGS BARKING]

Valerie Gonzalez

Well, there's doggies. Hi.

Student

Hello.

Valerie Gonzalez

So we're from the Go Center. I'm Ms. Gonzalez. And basically, we are just coming around. We wanted to give you this and invite you to our event. And basically, do you need any help applying to college or anything? Or do you know what you want to do after you graduate?

Student

I might take a year off.

Valerie Gonzalez

You might take a year off?

Student

Yes.

Ira Glass

Might take a year off is not the answer Valerie's looking for, but she's gotten a lot of it since the pandemic. At the high school she's at, Western Hills, the senior class last year, at this point in the year, 70% of them had applied to colleges in Texas. This year's senior class? Just 45%.

Valerie Gonzalez

Yeah. Many of my kids either don't want to go to college because they're already working.

Ira Glass

Working to help their families during the pandemic.

Valerie Gonzalez

Or they just want to go to community college. And you're like, well, why? You have a 3.8 GPA. You could go to a lot of four-year universities on scholarship. Why are you setting your sights low? And most of them are like, well, I want to stay close to home, or my mom is really concerned about COVID, and she doesn't want me to go anywhere. And the other thing, too, is the cost. Some of my students are like, why am I going to go to college? Why am I going to pay $50,000 if my classes are going to be virtual, and I'm not even going to get to go to class with my professors? It's going to all going to be online.

Ira Glass

Let me take you on one last stop on this mini college tour. In the scrambled year, colleges are seeing things they've never seen before. Lots of schools are not getting anywhere near the number of applications that they're used to, especially less selective schools because of students like Valerie's. Some schools are down 15%, 20%, and looking to take massive financial hits because of it.

Meanwhile, schools you might think of as having brand recognition and big flagship state schools, they're seeing a surge in applications. Lorraine's first choice schools, for example, NYU applications were up 20%, Cornell's up 31%, Columbia is up 51%, driven probably by students like Lorraine, who were hoping that this is their year, with no SATs blocking the way.

But even schools with great numbers aren't feeling great. Jon Boeckenstedt runs undergrad admissions for Oregon State, which has 34% more applications this year than last. He also writes about higher education and talks to admissions officers around the country.

Jon Boeckenstedt

Yeah, we're all sort of confused and befuddled. And a few of us are frankly terrified by what these numbers mean.

Ira Glass

Terrified because usually when they say yes to a bunch of applicants, they can predict how many of them are going to actually choose to enroll at their school. But this year, the normal indicators they would use for that are gone. For instance, did the student make a campus visit, which means they would be more likely to enroll in the fall. Well, those didn't happen this year. Or they had a high SAT score. Normally that would mean more schools want those students, and they would be less likely to enroll at Oregon State. But of course, they don't have the SAT scores. And so, as a result, when Boeckenstedt offers a place in his first year class to thousands of kids--

Jon Boeckenstedt

We might have way too many students enroll in the fall. And then the residence halls are crowded, and we don't have sufficient classroom space. And we just don't know how to handle the crush. On the other hand, too few students enroll, which is, again, scary. We're used to thinking of application increases as good things. And this year, we just don't know what they mean.

Ira Glass

For today on our program, college admissions in this pandemic year. So much is different this year. So much is unknown. And today on our program, we've chosen to focus on one very specific part of the picture, one of the most interesting things that got thrown into the air this year. And that is the SATs. For years, there have been people saying that they're unfair. Schools should not require them. And now, finally, like this vast national science experiment, most colleges have stopped requiring them. What's that look like? Will it actually change who gets into more selective schools? Have we crossed some line and we're not going back? From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: Act One

Ira Glass

So for months now, I've been looking into what's happening with college admissions since the pandemic with reporter Paul Tough, who's been on our show many times, who writes about education. And in fact, his most recent book is on the admissions process and the students that that system is not working for. Hey there, Paul.

Paul Tough

Hey, Ira.

Ira Glass

So, Paul, one of the things you point out in your book is that this period when kids apply to college is this unusual moment, probably the biggest moment in kids' lives in this country, when they get a real chance at social mobility.

Paul Tough

Yeah, going to college pays off in all kinds of ways. You're more likely to make more money, more likely to get married, more likely to live longer, to say you're happy. But it also makes a big difference where you go to college. This Harvard economist, Raj Chetty, did a study, and he found that for students who go to the most selective schools, the Ivy League schools and schools like it, have a one in five chance of making it into the top 1% of earners as an adult. If you go to a slightly less selective school, you have a one in 11 chance of making it into the top 1%. Go to community college, it's a one in 300 chance. Don't go to college at all, a one in 1,000 chance. So this moment in high school when kids are sorted into more and less selective institutions, it matters a lot.

Ira Glass

And that brings us to the subject of our show today, the SATs. They have been a big part of this sorting for a long time. And for the last few decades, there's been this debate about whether colleges should require the SATs. And one school after another has decided not to, has gone test optional. Notably, in 2018, the University of Chicago, one of the most rigorous and selective schools in the country, did it. And last spring, the biggest public system in the country, the University of California with over 225,000 undergrads on nine campuses, did away with the SAT.

At the time that the pandemic hit, about half of the country's four-year colleges were test optional. But still, the overwhelming majority of the country's most selective schools, including the Ivy League, were not test optional. They still required the SAT. And there was a real question-- should they do it? And then, with the pandemic, they did. Another 600 schools suddenly did not require the SAT, including pretty much all the most selective schools.

And we're going to look in today's show at what that has meant, especially for the kind of students who have been kept from those schools by the SAT in the past. And we're going to look at what's likely to happen with the SAT after the pandemic. But just to start here at the beginning, we should explain for anybody who hasn't followed this why schools were questioning the SAT in the first place. And Paul, you're going to take this part of the story. I'll see you again in a couple of minutes.

Paul Tough

If you want to understand why people are questioning the SAT these days, you should meet Daniela. She's one of those kids who seems destined for college. Her family immigrated to Riverside, California from Mexico when she was eight. She started third grade there, not speaking a word of English. And by the time she got to high school, she was taking honors classes, getting amazing grades, even though she was also working 20 hours a week cleaning houses and standing on street corners, flipping signs. There was a group of five students at the top of the class, and Daniela was always up there in that group. For most of high school, in fact, she was number one.

Daniela

The only B I ever got in class was my senior year in my Spanish class. I didn't really care too much about it, just because I already knew Spanish. So it wasn't my focus.

Paul Tough

I can't believe it's Spanish where you got your B.

Daniela

I know.

Paul Tough

I'm guessing you're pretty good at Spanish.

Daniela

I was really good at it, but I never showed up. But at the end of the day, the participation was what killed me. I was destroyed. I cried. I was like, no, my only B.

Paul Tough

She wanted to go to an Ivy League college or one of the elite University of California schools, like Berkeley or UCLA, and be a doctor. And then she took the SAT.

Daniela

No, yeah, definitely the SAT was kind of humbling. I was like, all these years, I grew up thinking I was kind of a genius because everybody was telling me. And then the SAT was like, no, you're not.

Paul Tough

This was during the years when the SAT wasn't using the 1,600-point scale that most people would know. But if you translated her score to today's scores, it would be about 1,180. That's a fine score, better than about 70% of the students who take the test. But it's not the kind of score that straight-A students usually get. And it isn't the kind of score that will get you into Ivy League schools or Berkeley or UCLA.

The five students at the top of Daniela's class were all super smart and ambitious. They competed with each other usually in a friendly way. She was number one until that one B, and then she slipped to number three. But when it came time for the SAT, Daniela noticed that three of those five, the ones who had more money, the ones whose parents were doctors, their families invested in the SAT. One kid's family paid for an expensive online course. One family hired a private tutor. Those students got top SAT scores. Only one of the five, a boy, got a score like hers.

Daniela

He did around the same score as me. And I saw him to be smarter than a lot of these people, but he came from a lower class family, a family that came from poverty as well. All the students that I saw do well came from money.

Paul Tough

Daniela wasn't the first person to notice this relationship between family income and test scores. It's been documented for years. Better off kids do better on the SAT for all kinds of reasons. Not just the private tutors and the 600-page study guides, they're also more likely to live in better neighborhoods, so they go to better schools. All of the advantages that go along with growing up with money feed into that test score. Still, for Daniela, it was frustrating.

Paul Tough

I'm also wondering, was there a way that that experience of getting the score that you did, did it sort of change your feeling about yourself as a student?

Daniela

Definitely. I think it was disheartening just because it was kind of like where I first questioned whether I was at their same level type of thing. Yeah, it definitely made me question a lot of my qualities or skills or-- yeah.

Paul Tough

Did you feel like you were as smart as them?

Daniela

I did. I felt like in class, I performed just as well as them. But that test was saying otherwise, you know? So when I got that test result, I was kind of questioning whether I was.

Paul Tough

That's so interesting. It sounds like there's a side of you that was like, oh, no, I'm definitely as smart as them. But there was maybe another side of you that was like, well, wait, maybe this is the real measure of who's smart and who's not. Was your brain sort of going back and forth between those two ideas?

Daniela

Yes, definitely. That's exactly what was happening. One side was like, no, I've seen these people, how they've analyzed an essay. I've seen how they've solved that problem. I know that I wrote out this research paper better than them, you know? I have seen them perform, and I have seen how my skills compare to them. And then but at the same time, I would think maybe this test is actually testing who's smarter. And this whole time I've been like passing by on a fluke or on luck.

Paul Tough

Do you think there was something about like the way that the test was presented that made it seem like, well, maybe this is the real measure of who's smart and who's not?

Daniela

Yeah, just the fact that this is what all these institutions are basing off entrance. If you do good, you deserve to go to college. If you don't, then it's not. So then I'm here questioning, should I even go to college? Am I even built for college? I don't even know if I'll do good in college because I clearly can't do good in this test. So yeah, it's presented like, if you don't do well, you're not going to do well in college.

Paul Tough

It's not surprising that Daniela had that thought. For years, that's how the SAT was sold-- as an objective measure of intelligence, a scientific indicator of who would succeed in college, more accurate than the grades that kids get in high school.

There's a lot of research, though, including studies from the College Board, the nonprofit organization that administers the SAT, that shows that this isn't quite true. Let me tell you the stuff that researchers mostly agree on. First, that high school grades are slightly better than SAT scores at predicting how well students will do in their first year in college, whether they'll graduate on time. If you can only have one number to judge a student, high school grades are your best bet.

Second, that if you look at the combination of a student's high school GPA and their SAT score, then you can predict their college performance slightly better than you can with just their high school grades alone. What they don't agree on is whether that extra bit of predictive power you get with the SAT is worth the cost. Because there's a third thing that everyone agrees on, and that is that SAT and ACT scores heavily favor rich kids, much more so than high school grades.

So if you use standardized tests in admissions, you're probably going to reject a lot of perfectly good students, who could succeed at your institution. And the students you're rejecting are more likely to be low income and first generation and non-white. The SAT is like a doctor's test that gives you a lot of false negatives. And students who are already underrepresented on campuses are more likely to be kept out of college by one of those false negatives.

In Daniela's case, when she saw her score, she decided it would be hopeless to apply to all her first choice schools-- Harvard, the other Ivy's, Berkeley. She applied to computer science at UCLA, whose average SAT was 300 points higher than hers, and didn't get in. As for the three affluent students in the top five, the ones with the SAT tutors and courses, they were accepted to Berkeley, Penn, and Harvard. The boy who came from the same background as Daniela went to Riverside Community College. And Daniela wound up at the University of California at Merced, the newest and least selective UC school. And Daniela says that seems like what the SAT is intended to do.

Daniela

It's meant to weed out-- it's mean to gatekeep, in my opinion.

Paul Tough

And do you think of it as like, it's just sort of accidentally keeping people out, or you feel like it's designed to keep people like you out of those colleges?

Daniela

I don't think it's accidental because I think that by now, the test has been around long enough to whether they could see patterns. So I feel like maybe at first, it was accidental. But now if they are seeing consistent patterns of students with certain socioeconomic backgrounds or ethnic backgrounds are doing not as good as others, then it has to be intentional.

Paul Tough

The people who run the SAT and the ACT, they would definitely say that it's not intentional, that certain groups do poorly on standardized tests because they face other disadvantages that hold back their academic progress. But it's certainly true that for decades now, these tests have kept excellent students like Daniela out of the best schools. Until just maybe this year-- when the majority of colleges, for the very first time, went test optional. The question is, did that help? Are students like Daniela now going to actually get into these more selective schools? The answer is complicated. And Ira's going to pick up this part of the story.

Ira Glass

Thanks, Paul. OK, so what's going to happen to students like Daniela without the SAT blocking them from top schools? Well, to give you a sense of that, let's look at one of those selective name brand schools that saw an increase in applications this year, thanks to test optional. Georgia Tech until this year used the SATs as one of the things that it looked at in screening applicants.

Then they went test optional because of the pandemic and got 11% more applications, and they got a more diverse application pool. Black students up 20%, students whose parents who didn't go to college, first generation students, up 20%. This, by the way, is typical even in non-pandemic times. When a school goes test optional, more kids think, hmm, maybe I can get in, and they apply. And the diversity of the applicants also increases.

The big questions next, of course, are, number one, would Georgia Tech offer those new applicant spots for the fall? And number two, will they accept? Now question number one, we actually now know the answer. They have sent out their offers to students. They did it about a week ago. Rick Clark, the head of undergrad admissions, says they have admitted 28% more Black students than last year, 20% more first generation students.

Rick Clark

And I'm pleased with that. I mean, we have a relatively new president, expanding access is a key part of his strategic plan.

Ira Glass

Wait, so that was set as a goal in the fall?

Rick Clark

Yes.

Ira Glass

And now so here you are with these numbers. So, things are going great, right? That's great.

Rick Clark

That's great, yes. I know. We're very, very pleased. And now of course we're turning our attention to, all right, we have to convince these students to choose us.

Ira Glass

And that's where things get hard because of money. Georgia Tech has a limited amount of financial aid to give out. On average, students only get half of what they need.

Rick Clark

Georgia Tech does not meet or commit to meeting that high percentage of need. Georgia Tech doesn't do that. We basically say, here is what it's going to cost to come to Georgia Tech. If you are able to finance that education, then you can obviously accept our offer. Whether or not they can make that kind of financial commitment, and often, in the end, have to take loans to do it, is going to be up to the family. So we make those offers, understanding that we probably aren't going to be able to yield them all.

Ira Glass

Aren't going to be able to yield is admissions speak for they know the students aren't all going to enroll.

Rick Clark

We know that from the very beginning.

Ira Glass

Even somebody getting state scholarships and Federal Pell grants could end up still needing $10,000 a year for tuition, Clark says. And facing that, some students choose a school that offers more financial aid. But what's probably way more common everywhere this happens, they end up somewhere less selective, less prestigious, close to home, and cheaper, which is to say, it's not just the SATs that keep otherwise qualified, low income, and first generation students out of elite schools. It's also money-- specifically how much money colleges have to help those students. Until last year, Angel Perez was in charge of enrollment at Trinity College, where he saw this with every class he admitted.

Angel Perez

You know, there were so many low income first gen kids in my pool that I could admit-- extremely qualified-- but there were only certain amount of dollars that I had in order to fully fund them.

Ira Glass

I'm going to be back Paul Tough now, who reported today's program with me. Because Paul, when you wrote your latest book, you actually followed Angel Perez during this process as he tried to enroll more low income and first generation kids at Trinity College.

Paul Tough

Yeah, it was really hard. I mean, there was no question that this was what he wanted to do. This is what the president of the college wanted him to do. But at the same time, Trinity College was losing millions of dollars a year. And they are, like many institutions, a place that gets most of their revenue from tuition. He had a goal that he had to make to get a certain amount of tuition from all the students that he admitted. I think it was $19 million he needed to bring in. And so, it didn't mean that he only admitted rich kids who could pay a lot, but it did mean that every student that he was evaluating, that was the first question he had to ask. Is this someone who's going to help me with the bottom line or not?

Ira Glass

Again, Angel Perez.

Angel Perez

And every time you are thinking about adding a student or subtracting a student, you have to go back and run the econometric model to see financially where are you, and whether or not you have blown the financial aid budget or whether or not you now do not have enough predicted tuition revenue to uphold the college's budget the following year.

Ira Glass

Paul, can you just talk about this thing that you saw him do that he had students that he really wanted to bring to Trinity that he just couldn't?

Paul Tough

Yeah, I mean, it was especially at the last part of the process was when I saw it the most, right? Because he started off just creating the class that he really wanted, all these highly qualified students, including a lot more low income students, first generation students. But then it was right around this time of year. It was the middle of March.

And everyone that he was admitting was making it harder for him to meet his tuition goals. Tensions were kind of running high. It was very emotional in his office with him and all of his admissions people. So the last weekend, he and the director of admissions just sent everybody else home, and they just sat together at their computer and went through one by one. And the last few dozen students that he cut were all low income ones who needed significant financial aid.

Ira Glass

So that's a normal year. Think about how many of those low income students these same schools can afford today, Perez says, with the financial problems that schools have had since the pandemic. Perez actually monitors the big picture with admissions around the country today in the job that he took when he left Trinity College a year ago. He's now head of the National Association of College Admissions Counseling.

Angel Perez

Even the wealthiest institutions with high endowments, they have taken big hits this year. And they collected less tuition. They are doing budget cuts. They are laying people off. And so, I'm hesitant to say we will see dramatic shifts in one year and underrepresented students at these institutions because of that difficult financial component.

Ira Glass

He says he expects a small bump in the number of these students at certain kinds of schools like flagship state schools. But overall-- and this is important-- the number of low income students and first generation students going to college this coming fall is probably going to drop for the first time in years.

How do we know this? Well, a bunch of ways, but most significant, federal student aid applications, FAFSA, are down 10% this year overall. Lots of kids around the country are downgrading, delaying, or giving up on college plans because money has been so tight during the pandemic. I talked to one girl, Abigail, who took a job at Walmart's pharmacy to help her family, rather than go to community college. And now she was like, all right, she's making money. Why change?

Abigail

I do think about college a lot still. Maybe my life would be different, but I kind of like it how it is now. You kind of just realize that I like this lifestyle, and I don't really feel comfortable going with something I don't know like college. But if I like how I am right now and the money I'm making right now, then I shouldn't really go.

Ira Glass

So this fall, expect some schools to see a small increase in students like Daniela, but the overall number of students like her going to college next year probably will drop.

Calling around to admissions directors, one of the other things I was interested in was most of the best schools in the country were used to using the SAT as this tool to figure out who they were going to admit. For years, these schools have resisted calls to change that. So what was it like for them this year to do the jobs without it? The answer, of course, varied from school to school.

Jon Boeckenstedt, who runs admissions at Oregon State University, has watched and written about the politics of test optional for years. He likes test optional. In his career, he's taken two schools test optional. He says, this year, for many of his peers, he thinks it's a relief to have it gone. One of the ways that their schools were always judged was by their SAT scores, when the SAT scores are published each year in places like the US News and World Report Ranking of Best Colleges.

Jon Boeckenstedt

Yeah, I think if you talk to admissions people, they will say they're happy to be rid of the test. Because it allows them to make decisions free of that albatross hanging around their neck. They don't have to worry about the average test score going down. They can find students who are interesting and who would bring something really valuable to the campus, but may not have that stellar score.

Ira Glass

In that sense, he says the pandemic let some admissions people get away with something they'd wanted to do for a while-- to ditch the SATs. Of course, lots of admissions directors did not see the SAT as an albatross. They saw it as valuable and helpful as they made their decisions. One person like that is the head of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale, Jeremiah Quinlan. He was lucid and unapologetic in listing the merits of the SAT in admissions at Yale. He says because they've got people applying from all kinds of schools all over the world--

Jeremiah Quinlan

It's useful to have something that's consistent among applicants, even when we're aware of how limited and imperfect that metric can be, AKA the SAT or the ACT. It could be especially valuable since our internal research-- we look at these things regularly-- show that the tests are predictive of Yale performance above and beyond high school GPA.

Ira Glass

He means, in other words, even though studies show that in general, at most colleges, your high school GPA is a better predictor of how you do, with the particular population of students they have at Yale, he says, SAT predicts better how they do in their first year and over four years.

Jeremiah Quinlan

And it is often common that strong test scores helped boost the case of a student from an underrepresented background, who doesn't have other strong and compelling elements in their file, and elevate them in the committee's eyes because the testing is the data point that sort of affirms their ability to do well on a college campus.

Ira Glass

He argues that at Yale, they have figured out a way to keep using the SAT, but still increase the diversity of their first year class. In the last eight years, they've gone from 12% low income students to 21% and 12% first generation students to 19%. Right now, at the point of the year that we are in right now, we are coming to the end of the selection process at most top schools around the country. They usually send out decisions to students by the end of March. Yale saw over 11,000 more applicants than last year. Quinlan says they've been working six and seven days a week to get to them all. It's also a more diverse pool of applicants than in the past.

Jeremiah Quinlan

But whether or not that will translate to what the overall admissions outcomes are still remains to be seen.

Ira Glass

Do you feel like not having the SAT is actually giving you access to students that you wouldn't have had access to? And you feel like, oh, there's a plus sign to it also.

Jeremiah Quinlan

Yes, but I'll have more to say about that when we get through the process and we can actually see whether or not those students are rising in our pool and getting admitted, and they're ultimately coming to Yale. But I think it is clear that there are students who are in our pool this year who would not have been in our pool previously because of our test optional policies.

Ira Glass

I think the big question on a lot of the schools that suddenly went test optional this year was, how hard would this be to do their jobs without the SATs, where they come out of the process confident that they had chosen the best students for their schools? The nonprofit that does the other big standardized test, the ACT test, did a survey of admissions and enrollment directors asking about this. A third of them said going test optional this year made admissions decisions highly or extremely difficult. Of course, that means 2/3 did not see it that way. The admissions directors that I talked to all said, wasn't so bad. If anything, it proved to them that doing admissions without the SATs was manageable, like they could do it and find students they were happy with. Again, Jeremiah Quinlan from Yale.

Jeremiah Quinlan

And I can say that it has not been as disruptive as we had thought it was going to be. We have found that if you just spend a little bit more time looking at the transcript, the essays, letters of recommendation, or even an interview, you can find evidence of academic preparation or curiosity or excitement or fit for Yale that can make us confident in our ability to admit the right type of students.

Ira Glass

One thing on applications that became a lot more important to the admissions people I talked to, now that they didn't have the SATs, seeing the rigor of a student's curriculum, like how many advanced placement classes did they take, that kind of thing. And what did they get in those classes? Understandable, of course, but it obviously gave a boost to students from high schools with more resources that offer lots of advanced classes.

As for what's going to happen after the pandemic, will schools go back to requiring the SAT, several admissions directors that I talked to said that it was going to be hard to go back to the way things were. They thought their schools might have to stay test optional just to compete with all the other schools that will stay test optional. The 900-pound gorilla at the table on that one is the University of California, whose Board of Regents seems very committed to not going back to the SAT. To attract California students who might decide not to take the test or to compete with the University of California for the best students, one admissions director said he might have to stay test optional. Though, on the flip side, Jon Boeckenstedt thinks maybe some elite schools will see advantages in going back to the SAT.

Jon Boeckenstedt

So there's reputational benefits to it. You must be really good because you're hard to get into because your test scores suggest that.

Ira Glass

Also he told Paul some schools like the SATs because they need students who can pay full tuition, and high SAT scores give them the reason to pick those kids over others.

Jon Boeckenstedt

And it gives them a justification for it.

Paul Tough

But you're saying it's a justification because it's hard to say that out loud, but it's easy to say we need test scores.

Jon Boeckenstedt

It's easy to say we want test scores. It's hard to say we would prefer to have 60% of our students not receive financial aid.

Ira Glass

We invited the nonprofit that runs the SATs, the College Board, for an interview about their future in a post-pandemic world. They declined, but sent a written statement saying the College Board supports schools that decided to go test optional and stating also, quote, "When used in context, test scores can help admissions officers diversify campus and set students up for success when they arrive." It's clear, however this shakes out, the SATs and ACTs are going to emerge from the pandemic substantially weaker than they were before, like football teams that lost tons of yardage that they may or may not regain.

In that survey of colleges that the SAT's competitor, the ACT test, published this month, half the schools that went test optional because of COVID said that they would be unlikely to go back to requiring SAT or ACT scores. In the end, the main thing that will probably determine whether schools go back to requiring the SAT will be how the students perform, who they chose without SATs. Will more of them drop out? Will their grades be lower?

One of the things I learned when I was calling around to admissions directors is that whatever the studies say about how good grades are at predicting who's going to do well in college, lots of them still trust the SATs and find them useful. One told me he definitely was worried that the students he was choosing without the SATs would not succeed at his school. And in their jobs, admissions directors are evaluated on whether the students they select stay in school and graduate.

Coming up, a glimpse at a very different way to run a college. And as part of it, letting in tons of students without looking at their SATs, that's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Two: A World Without The Need For Number Two PencilsĀ 

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's show, The Campus Tour Has Been Cancelled. With college admissions all jumbled up this year, thanks to the pandemic, we're doing an episode today about one of the biggest changes that's come as part of it. Most schools around the country, including most of the top schools-- for now anyway-- have stopped requiring the SAT and ACT tests in admissions.

I co-reported today's program with reporter Paul Tough. So far in our program, we've been talking about why this is such a big deal, what its impact might be. And in this last part of the show, we're going to turn to the future, or anyway, a picture of one possible future. We've arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two, A World Without the Need for Number Two Pencils.

So if you want to imagine what college admissions might look like without the SAT being required, one place you could go is the University of Texas at Austin. UT Austin is the flagship school of the Texas system, one of the top ranked public universities in the country. And since 1998, because of a state law, they've been doing something at UT that no other big university in the country does.

Every year, they admit most of their freshman class based strictly on student's class rank-- who has the highest grades in their high school-- without paying attention to their SAT scores at all. This law is known as the Top 10% Rule because the way it worked when they started was that if you were in the top 10% of your high school class, you were automatically admitted to UT Austin. Since then, the percentage of students has gone down. Now it is the top 6% of your class, but it works the same. It doesn't matter what you get in your SAT. If you're in the top of your class, you're in.

So what you end up with is the top students from rich suburban high schools around Dallas and rural towns in West Texas and Latino majority schools in the Rio Grande Valley. And it makes for a very different freshman class at UT than you would see at most state flagship colleges. And it also makes it an especially interesting place to ask a question that's relevant now as we contemplate whether to bring back the SAT after the pandemic. What happens if you just ignore students' test scores? What happens if you admit students with great grades from a variety of high schools who do well in the classroom, but not on the SAT? Students like Daniela.

Well, it turns out admitting students based only on their grades, their class rank from high schools all over the state, makes UT a very different university from others in some significant and interesting ways. Paul explains.

Paul Tough

When I was reporting my book, I spent a lot of time at UT, and I met a lot of students there who'd been admitted with excellent high school grades and lower test scores. Ivonne I met on the first day of her freshman calculus class. She was from the west side of San Antonio, a neighborhood where no one had much money, a high school where teachers kept leaving in the middle of the year. In many ways, her story was just like Daniela's. She was number two in her class, but her SAT score was only so-so. In her case, though, her test score didn't make her question her identity and her self-worth, like it did for Daniela. She just figured it was her high school.

Ivonne

I realized that it's a reflection of my educational system, the one that I come from, so for my high school. And I think a lot of us, we knew. We talked about our school and how it was really bad. And this is our reality. This is kind of what we have to deal with, how we knew our education was terrible.

Paul Tough

After she saw her SAT score, Ivonne didn't apply to a lot of her first choice schools, just like Daniela. But unlike Daniela, Ivonne knew she had this safety net. The SAT was not going to derail her college plans.

Ivonne

It was like, no matter the consequences of this exam, I know UT is going to take me because my ranking is good. So it's fine. I still have UT. I'll go to UT.

Paul Tough

And she didn't see UT as a consolation prize. She knew it was a great school. Her older sister was going there. It seemed exciting. But arriving at UT was a shock to our system, especially Calculus. Her professor was a man named Uri Treisman, a well-known math educator. And his strategy is to start the first class of freshman calculus with these really high level mathematical proofs. So everyone can feel confused together, like a bonding exercise. It freaked Ivonne out. She was a math major, and she'd taken AP Calculus, but she says her math teachers in high school didn't really seemed to know what they were doing. And when I met her that first day of freshman calculus, she was totally lost.

Ivonne

Because I'd never seen proofs, I'd never seen calculus taught in that way. So I would fail almost every exam and just struggle every time it was-- calculus made me doubt my ability to complete college so many times.

Paul Tough

When the Top 10% Rule was introduced in Texas in the late '90s, this was what people were worried about. Good students from subpar high schools would be out of their depth at a rigorous place like UT Austin-- basically, the same worry that a lot of admissions officers today are having, now that they're admitting students without SAT scores. They fear students will be like Ivonne was when she first got to UT.

And there's some data to justify those fears. Students like Ivonne, students where there's a real mismatch between their good high school grades and their lower SATs, they usually do quite well when they get to good colleges. But their graduation rates are, on average, slightly lower than students with higher SATs. And for some of them, the transition to college can be rough. Ivonne says for her, the problem was that she never learned in high school how to study.

Ivonne

Because I never had to study for high school, and high school was never challenging academically.

Paul Tough

So when you first got there, did you feel like there was sort of-- I don't know-- two tiers of students, like the ones who were coming from backgrounds like yours, where their high schools weren't the greatest, and others who had had sort of perfect academic preparation?

Ivonne

I think you could kind of just tell by what some people were wearing.

Paul Tough

By the way, this interview was over the internet. And the sound quality wasn't the best.

Ivonne

So some girls, they would wear Uggs. I obviously knew I couldn't afford Uggs. And then that's when I would start asking them questions like, oh, what high school did you go? So I would bring up the past to see-- I guess, in a sense, make myself understand it's OK. It's like, I'm struggling now because I come from a bad high school, and they are doing better because they were from a better high school.

Paul Tough

This was exactly the situation that her calculus professor, Uri Treisman, was focused on-- students who feel like they're starting from way behind. Here's one of the things he would do. Every weekend, he would have these long office hours where these students would come in and talk. I sat in on a lot of these sessions back in 2017. And they weren't anything like other professor's office hours. He and his students didn't really talk much about math.

Ivonne

Hi, good morning.

Uri Treisman

Ivonne.

Ivonne

Yeah.

Uri Treisman

You are working so hard in this class.

Ivonne

Yeah.

Uri Treisman

I mean, are you getting any sleep?

Ivonne

I feel like sometimes it's more than most, but not the best.

Paul Tough

This was October. Ivonne was about halfway through freshman calculus. She was still feeling totally out of her depth. And at a lot of colleges, what they do with students like that is put them in a remedial class, something they can handle. Treisman does the opposite. It's a method he came up with decades ago when he was teaching at Berkeley. He noticed that when struggling students were put into remedial math, they usually never caught up.

But if you took the same students and put them in a challenging program, pushed them to see how well they could perform, they would rise to the occasion. First, though, there was usually a lot of anguish. And at UT, freshman calculus was in large part about managing students' anxiety and self-doubt. So Treisman's office hours were a combination of bonding session, therapy, and pep talk.

Uri Treisman

You're going to be successful in here. You ended up in a really honors calculus, super duper difficult.

Ivonne

Yeah.

Uri Treisman

And most people would run away. You are feeling tremendously stressed, but you're not running away.

Ivonne

I still love math, even though I feel like I'm struggling with it. I remember my teacher once said, I'm very stubborn. So I feel like I still want to stay in something that I--

Uri Treisman

Now this is a key characteristic of mathematicians-- stubbornness. We don't give up. But I'm worried that I'm pushing you in a way where you are losing self-confidence.

Ivonne

Oh, I feel like I definitely am.

Paul Tough

Treisman tells her he knows she's in a class with students who already mastered this material back in high school.

Uri Treisman

You are going to catch up with them in a few weeks, in a month. But because you always did well and now you're struggling, you're saying to yourself, maybe I'm not good enough to be here. Is that what's in your head?

Ivonne

It pops up once in a while that I feel like-- I don't know-- it is stressful. Because I feel like I'm falling behind because I'm not getting the full concept. But I know if I put my effort, I eventually will. But I feel like by that time, it would be too late if that makes sense.

Uri Treisman

It won't be too late. You have to trust me.

Paul Tough

Ivonne wanted to trust Professor Treisman, but she didn't feel like she was catching up, not at all. On the first big test, Ivonne got a 67. On the first midterm, she did worse, a 59. With the second midterm coming up in the middle of November, Ivonne was studying like crazy. And the night before the exam there was a moment when the puzzle pieces briefly seemed to be fitting into place. I talked to her later that week.

Ivonne

I sat down, and I was like, OK, I can see the logic, and I can do it. And then sometime later on that night, I couldn't do it anymore. The problems that I did before became harder. I could--

Paul Tough

Oh, you looked back at what you used to know, and suddenly you were going backwards.

Ivonne

Yeah, I felt like I was moving backwards.

Paul Tough

It's like a horror movie.

Ivonne

And then I was like, OK, don't do this to yourself, so I went to sleep. I slept it off. But then I woke up and I woke up feeling like it was gone. I think it was the stress probably. That's why I started crying on the bus.

Paul Tough

Crying on the what?

Ivonne

On the bus. I was coming over here, and I'm like, I don't feel ready. I really can't take it.

Paul Tough

She got off the bus, and she was walking through campus on her way to the midterm and her phone rang. It was her mom back home in San Antonio.

Ivonne

And she was like, have you been crying? Why does it sound like you're crying? And then I told her, I don't feel prepared. And she's like, oh, it's OK. You can come back to UTSA.

Paul Tough

UTSA is the University of Texas in San Antonio, less demanding than UT Austin and less prestigious.

Ivonne

So I guess that made it worse. I actually hung up on her.

Paul Tough

Ivonne sat down on a bench outside of the lecture hall where the exam was going to happen, looking miserable. The teaching assistant, a woman named Erica Winterer, came over to check on her. The two of them talked it over, and Erica told her she should just take the exam later in the week.

Ivonne

I guess because I looked like I was crying, and I looked hysterical. And so Professor Treisman emailed me that day. He's like, I know, I heard what happened. And honestly, I didn't reply because I feel ashamed. Because I feel like they're putting in all this effort, and I feel like I'm just not meeting up to them, if that makes sense. So I guess, I don't only feel like I'm failing myself. I feel like I'm failing them.

Paul Tough

She got a 55 on that midterm. Things seemed to be heading in the wrong direction, and the final was coming up. In Professor Treisman's calculus classes, there was always a lot of pressure before the final, because if you did well, that grade would replace all of your previous grades in the course. But if Ivonne wasn't able to turn things around in the final, she'd end up with a D or an F in the course. She'd probably have to switch majors.

One of the things that makes the University of Texas interesting is that the kind of support Ivonne was getting from Erica and Professor Treisman was happening in different forms all over campus. The person coordinating this was a science professor named David Laude. He had started small, trying to help students who were failing his own introductory chemistry course, who often had significantly lower SAT scores. He created a special section for them with smaller classes, extra attention, kind of a school within a school on a sprawling campus of 40,000 students. Just like Uri Treisman, he emphasized that this was not a remedial program. These students took the same exams as everybody else, covered the same challenging material.

David Laude

And in the end, those students, even though, just looking at SAT distributions, were several hundred points lower on average, ended up getting exactly the same grades as the students in the larger course.

Paul Tough

And I'm curious about at that moment, what you thought about those SAT scores. I feel like there are a lot of science professors out there who look at a group that has lower SAT scores and just thinks, these kids are not as smart, right? That's measuring something real about them. Did you have that feeling? What did you make of those low SAT scores?

David Laude

Well, as someone who earned one of those low SAT scores myself, it wasn't as if I was-- I think it's safe to say that my view of SAT scores and what they meant about an individual was probably different from a lot of folks.

Paul Tough

He grew up in a farm town, and when he got to college, he had no idea what he was doing. He almost dropped out his first year. So he could relate. And in 2012, when he became a vice provost at UT, he took what he learned from helping his chemistry students, expanded it, and brought it to the entire campus-- peer mentors, study groups, counseling, summer orientations, tutoring centers. He called it the kitchen sink approach.

David Laude

And how much time it took was very different than what you might think. I don't think these students should be in a four-year program that isolates them from the rest of the campus. My sense was give them a semester, maybe two, and then mainstream them so that by the time they're a sophomore in college, they really don't appear to be different from anybody else.

Paul Tough

Ivonne was placed into a couple of Laude's support programs when she enrolled at UT. And in calculus after her midterm breakdown, Erica, her TA, invited her to join an all-female study group she had set up. They started meeting a couple of times a week in the library.

Erica Winterer

OK, but I want to answer Ivonne's question. Is U, right here in this integral, is U a constant or not?

Paul Tough

That's Erica. In these early sessions, they could spend an hour and a half on a single problem. There were a lot of long silences.

Erica Winterer

Why?

Paul Tough

No one wanted to be the first person to suggest a wrong answer.

Erica Winterer

You're just going to have to write things down that are wrong. You're going to be wrong in college so much more than you were in high school, and it's super annoying.

Paul Tough

But then in one session, the light bulb went on, and Ivonne was the first one to get it.

Erica Winterer

Is that related to getting 2 over here? What did we start with?

Ivonne

Wait, yeah. Because you plug in I, and then you move the I over. And then you divide it by 2, and then you get the 2 in front.

Erica Winterer

OK.

Ivonne

[INAUDIBLE]

Paul Tough

It was one of the first times she made a suggestion in calculus all year. As the study group continued, Ivonne started taking more chances, risking more wrong answers, growing more confident. And things started to click just in time. I saw her on the morning of the calculus final, and she looked happy. She told me she had gone back through the whole textbook over the weekend. And for the first time, she understood everything.

Ivonne

I was like, wait, hold on, this makes sense. And I was like, OK, this relates to that and this to that. So now I was able to relate later chapters to earlier chapters. Like, oh, it makes sense why we learned that in the beginning.

Paul Tough

That's so great.

Ivonne

Yeah.

Paul Tough

She was right to be excited. She aced the final, which meant she had an A in the course. She went on to advanced calculus the next semester and did well in that, too. She went from failure and despair in October of her freshman year to being a successful math major by the end of May.

Remember David Laude's point that struggling freshmen don't need constant support over all four years of college, just a semester or two? That's what happened with Ivonne. Once things clicked for her in that calculus class, they never really unclicked. She says once her courses got harder in junior and senior year, it didn't feel like classmates from better schools had an edge anymore. It was equally hard for everybody. She was contributing as much in study groups as anyone.

Ivonne's story is actually not that unusual. There's an economist at Columbia University named Sandra Black, who has looked at the effect of the top 10% program at UT, not just on individual students, but on everybody. She did this one study where she looked at students like Ivonne, students who got into UT only because of top 10.

Sandra Black

So this is the really interesting part, I think, or the really cool finding is that they do really well. So, more likely to graduate with a four-year degree. They do better in terms of earnings in the long run. And so, really, it seems like this concern, I think, that people have that these students are going to be unprepared really seems not to be an issue. They aren't out of their league.

Paul Tough

The remarkable thing about this data is that it's all from the first years of top 10%, back before David Laude introduced his programs to the campus. These students are doing even better now. Sandra Black also did a study imagining how UT Austin and Texas A&M, the other state flagship, would change if they suddenly introduced a strict SAT cutoff to top 10%, rejecting students whose scores fell below a certain point. She found that UT and A&M would have more kids graduating in four years, but only a few percent more. But there'd be a big effect on diversity. Black and Hispanic students would go from 24% of the student body to 14%, and you'd lose 3/4 of the students who came from the lowest income schools.

Sandra Black

So, the cost would be very high relative to the benefit.

Paul Tough

Ivonne is now a senior at UT. She's planning to go to graduate school next year in data science. A few weeks ago, she got into Harvard. I have to admit, I don't think it's what I would have predicted for her during those dark days in freshman calculus.

Paul Tough

Do you ever think about what would have happened if there was not a top 10% program where you would have gone, where you would have gotten in, how your life would be different?

Ivonne

Honestly, I think that's a really good question because I think my life would be very different because I think if top 10 was not a rule, I would have probably not applied to UT, not applied to universities. I would have probably stayed home and applied to a community college.

Paul Tough

If you look back to the moment right before Ivonne was admitted to the University of Texas, you can see the paths diverging in front of her. One would have led her to community college in San Antonio. The other led her to graduate school at Harvard. Right now, in admissions offices all over the country, they're finalizing their decisions. And for the first time, at hundreds of schools, the SAT won't be there to stop them from enrolling students like Ivonne, which means that next year, maybe, at least a few more students would get the chance to prove themselves the way she did.

Ira Glass

Paul Tough, his book about the college admissions process, I cannot say enough about how much I liked it-- the stories of the people that he tells, but also the way that he lays out the data describing the big picture. It's called The Inequality Machine, How College Divides Us.

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Credits

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by me and Elna Baker. The people who put together our show today could Ben Calhoun, Dana Chivvis, Sean Cole, Aviva DeKornfeld, Hilary Elkins, Damien Graef, Seth Lind, Tobin Low, Miki Meek, Lina Misitzis, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Rae Mondo, Nadia Reiman, Ari Saperstein, Robyn Semien, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, and Julie Whitaker. Our managing editor is Sarah Abdurrahman. Our senior editor is David Kestenbaum. Our executive editor is Emanuele Berry.

Special thanks today to Nicole Hurd and the many College Advising Corps counselors and counselees who talked to us, Miranda Suarez from KERA who helped with the reporting, Steven Farmer, Ryan Hogan, Jared Cash, Kat Kouot, Tara Miller, Akil Bello, Kirk Brennan, Robert Schwartz, Christine Isborn, Amira Ringgold, Noor Gill, Kandace Lupercio, Janet Romero, Zach Bleemer, Matt Barnum, Regina Trevino, Eloy Oakley, Susan Pierson-Brown, Kelly Anderson, and Julie Snyder.

Our website, thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to our archive of 700 episodes for absolutely free. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's confounder, Mr. Torey Malatia. He took one of those BuzzFeed quizzes, Which Character From Sex and the City Are You? It said he was Miranda, even though, of course, he always thought of himself as a Carrie.

Daniela

But that test was saying otherwise, you know? So when I got that test result, I was kind of questioning whether I was.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

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