DePaul Becomes Biggest Private University to Go 'Test Optional'

Applicants may choose to write essays that reveal 'heart'

Ralf-Finn Hestoft, Corbis

At DePaul U., admissions officers hope their test-optional policy will draw not only more-diverse applicants but also students who are likelier to graduate.
February 17, 2011

DePaul University will no longer require applicants to submit standardized-test scores for admission. The new policy, announced on Thursday morning, makes DePaul the largest private nonprofit university to go completely "test optional."

Starting with applicants for the freshman class entering in 2012, students who choose not to submit ACT or SAT scores will write short responses to essay questions designed to measure "noncognitive" traits, such as leadership, commitment to service, and ability to meet long-term goals.

"Admissions officers have often said that you can't measure heart," said Jon Boeckenstedt, associate vice president for enrollment management. "This, in some sense, is an attempt to measure that heart."

Mr. Boeckenstedt expects the change to encourage applicants with high grade-point averages but relatively low ACT and SAT scores to apply—be they low-income students, underrepresented minorities, or otherwise. Moreover, he and his colleagues believe the new admissions option will allow them to better select applicants who are most likely to succeed—and graduate.

A few years ago, DePaul incorporated noncognitive variables into its admissions process for the first time. Subsequent research convinced Mr. Boeckenstedt and his colleagues that those nontraditional measures did more than the ACT or SAT to predict the success of low-income and minority students at the university. "These are as good an additive predictor, and for some students, they're a little better," he said.

DePaul's announcement is a reminder that the test-optional label now applies to a diverse mix of colleges. In 2008, Wake Forest University became one of the most-selective institutions yet to drop its testing requirements. Its decision affirmed that test-optional policies were not only for nonselective institutions or small liberal-arts colleges.

Now, DePaul will test the utility of alternative admissions requirements within a deep, diverse applicant pool. As one of the largest Roman Catholic institutions in the United States, DePaul enrolls about 16,000 undergraduates—more than three times as many as Wake Forest. DePaul began using the Common Application last fall, and as of this week, had received more than 16,000 applications (for a class of about 2,300 to 2,500). That's a 42-percent increase over the number of applications DePaul had at the same point last year.

"Institutions find themselves moving in this direction for so many different reasons," David H. Kalsbeek, DePaul's senior vice president for enrollment management, said of the decision to change testing requirements. "But by any measure, we're coming at this from a position of strength."

In some corners of academe, test-optional policies have become synonymous with strategic positioning. Over the years, some admissions officials have decided to drop the ACT and SAT in hopes of attracting more applicants, increasing diversity, and—yes—improving their image in a competitive marketplace, where standardized-test scores are often a proxy for quality (applicants with lower test scores usually don't submit them).

Yet Mr. Kalsbeek said DePaul's decision to change admissions requirements had been informed by studies of institutional data as well as by concerns about the correlation between standardized-test scores and family income: "It's a very student-centered strategy."

 A Second Look at Tests

Application surges make presidents, trustees, and enrollment officials happy. But with big increases often come tough questions. In recent years, DePaul officials have grappled with two crucial ones: How should the institution balance its increasing selectivity with its traditional commitment to access? And how could it improve its retention and graduation rates, so that access and attainment go hand in hand?

Unlike some colleges that have stopped requiring the ACT and SAT, DePaul is broadly diverse. About two-fifths of its undergraduates are first-generation college students, and a tenth are graduates of Chicago's public high schools. A quarter receive federal Pell Grants. Among the university's many students whose first language was not English, a good number first spoke Polish.

Concerned that standardized tests were limiting access, however, DePaul officials began investigating noncognitive assessments several years ago. In 2008 the university added four short essay questions to its freshman application. Those questions were based on the research of William E. Sedlacek, a professor emeritus of education at the University of Maryland at College Park and author of Beyond the Big Test: Noncognitive Assessment in Higher Education.

Mr. Sedlacek has identified eight predictors of student success in college, including leadership experience, involvement in community service, and demonstration of knowledge acquired in a particular field. DePaul's four essay questions were created to elicit responses that would allow trained readers to rate an applicant on each of those eight variables.

One question prompted applicants to describe a goal they had set for themselves and how they planned to accomplish it: "How would you compare your educational interests and goals with other students in your high school?" Another question said: "Describe a personal challenge you have faced, or a situation in which you or others were treated unfairly. How did you react to the situation and what conclusions did you draw from the experience? Were you able to turn to others for support?"

DePaul stopped requiring those questions last year, when it joined the Common Application, which asks students to write a personal essay of at least 250 words. Mr. Boeckenstedt said he worried about giving applicants too many essays (applicants had been told to write at least 100 words for each of DePaul's four essay questions, but many wrote much more).

Nonetheless, officials were not ready to abandon the noncognitive questions for good. After all, they had been scrutinizing their testing requirements for years. At DePaul, high-school grades are by far the best predictor of success. Although ACT and SAT scores are also solid predictors, they provide little additional insight beyond what a student's high-school transcript reveals, according to Mr. Boeckenstedt.

"It's just double-counting, or confirming information we already have," he said.

DePaul officials found that ACT and SAT scores were less reliable predictors of grades and academic progress—that is, of a student's likelihood of completing a sufficient number of credit hours to progress toward a degree. When Mr. Boeckenstedt and his colleagues looked at their data, they found that the noncognitive variables were often better predictors of graduation than standardized-test scores were.

DePaul has yet to determine how many questions it will ask applicants to complete if they opt not to send their test scores, but the prompts will be similar to those it used previously. The university, which has described the test-optional program as a pilot project, plans to study the effects of the change over the next four years.

Mr. Boeckenstedt hopes the new policy will convince prospective students that their high-school record matters more than their performance on the ACT or SAT does. "Test scores are valuable for some things," he said, "but the focus and obsession we have about them as a country is a little bit misplaced, if not a lot misplaced."