Op-Ed: Diversity in the Eye of the Beholder: Examining Whitman’s Test-Optional Policy

Megumi Rierson, Whitman College Junior

Last Semester, Whitman eliminated its standardized test score requirement on its application on the grounds that the requirement unfairly advantages applicants with socioeconomic privilege. Whitman’s press release expressed a commitment to diversity by “increasing access for outstanding students from groups who have been historically underrepresented.” In reality, test-optional policies have become tools that colleges use to move up rankings lists and promote their institutional brand.

Many praised Whitman’s test-optional move for furthering institutional goals of diversity. Whitman’s Office of Admissions claimed that the policy demonstrated Whitman’s commitment to “academic achievement, initiative, talent, integrity, and potential more than standardized testing.” The press release also acknowledged that standardized test scores have been closely linked with family income and education level. Removing an application requirement that favors those from privileged backgrounds is ostensibly a step towards the goal of improved access to higher education.

The Office of Admissions also cited two studies on test-optional policies performed by researchers at Bates College and the University of Georgia. In the Bates study, researchers found that Bates’ test-optional policy caused an overall increase in applications from traditionally “diverse” populations such as women, students of color, low-income students, students from rural areas and students with learning disabilities. However, researchers did not indicate whether the increase in applications affected the number of “diverse” students enrolled at the college.

In the University of Georgia study, researchers examined whether test-optional policies truly change institutional demographics at private liberal arts colleges. After analyzing 180 selective liberal arts colleges, the data showed that institutions received an average of 220 more applications and an average SAT score increase of 26 points after adopting test-optional policies. Ultimately, researchers found that institutions with these policies enrolled fewer Pell grant recipients and minority students than their test-requiring counterparts for all 18 years of the study.

Whitman has a vested interest in staying competitive with other selective liberal arts institutions. Whitman aims to do this by maintaining its prestige as a selective institution, which test-optional policies support. Increased applications allow Whitman to decrease its acceptance rate, increase its selectivity and reject more students than it did before the policy was implemented.

If Whitman follows the trend set by other selective liberal arts colleges, the average test scores of applicants will increase because only high-scoring applicants will choose to report. A decreased admissions rate, increased average test score and a public commitment to institutional diversity via test-optional applications can all be used to market Whitman as a distinct brand in an increasingly competitive higher education marketplace.

If Whitman sees no significant increase in socioeconomic diversity, then the result of a test-optional policy will likely be a larger number of “diverse” applicants competing for the same number of spots available for students in disadvantaged socioeconomic positions. While standardized tests present a socioeconomic barrier for students, so do AP tests, need-sensitive financial aid policies, merit aid scholarships, extracurricular activities and Whitman’s $60,000 tuition. Eliminating one barrier from a system of many does little to address the significant challenges of access to Whitman.

If anything, test-optional policies simply place greater weight on the other application criteria that are more accessible to privileged populations. If your SAT score carries less weight on your application, your AP scores and extracurricular activitiees will carry more. In this sense, the Admissions Office is correct in claiming that test-optional policies examine student potential beyond standardized testing, if that potential includes AP classes and multiple extracurriculars. Because access to these programs is unequally distributed by class, Whitman will likely continue to enroll the same kinds of students from the same kinds of socioeconomic backgrounds, i.e. white, upper-middle-class students from Seattle, Portland, the Midwest and the Bay Area.

The claim that test-optional policies increase institutional diversity is inconsistent with data that proves the change in policy will have little impact on enrolled students. While applications might increase as a result of the decreased weight of test scores, access to the institution itself is still hampered by the network of application factors that are more accessible to the socioeconomically privileged.

Whitman claims to combat socioeconomic inequality when in fact it depends on socioeconomic inequality for its financial survival. It is in this sense that Whitman’s test-optional policy is both a disingenuous commitment to institutional diversity and a mode of reproducing the very class barriers that the policy purports to mitigate.