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A More Equitable and Accessible Future for Higher Education

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Logan Powell, EMBA ’21, never thought he would earn a university education, let alone work in college admissions.

Logan Powell, EMBA ’21, Dean of Admissions at Brown University

“I didn’t really know anyone who had gone to college, but I thankfully found that one person in high school who would steer me on a path to college,” Powell, dean of admissions at Brown University, told attendees of the “Leadership and Innovation in Higher Education” MIT Sloan Alumni Online panel in September.

Fellow panelist Stu Schmill, SB ’86, dean of admissions and student financial services at MIT, echoed Powell’s story when relaying his own: “That’s something that has always stayed with me, that there was someone in my path that helped steer me. Now, I’m privileged to be in a role where I can return that favor to a few other students.”

They joined panel moderator Jackie Selby, EMBA ’21, to discuss current topics in higher education and what the future may hold for college admissions.

The role of standardized testing

Standardized testing was an especially relevant topic. Just before MIT President Rafael Reif announced campus would close and the rest of the spring semester would go virtual in March 2020, MIT decided to no longer consider SAT subject tests. In subsequent announcements, the Institute suspended its SAT and ACT testing requirements for the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 application cycles.

7 %

of schools still require SAT or ACT scores

These decisions reflected the general feeling at the time of university leaders across the country. As Powell explained, it was not fair to require potential applicants to submit standardized test scores when many of the testing facilities were no longer open to them.

“Everything stopped, including taking standardized tests. Students who had studied for these exams when they thought the test sites would be open would show up to find that the sites were closed,” said Powell. “We had many students who simply could not take the SAT or the ACT, so nearly every college in the country became test optional because we needed to be.”

Just over two years later, many universities—including Brown—have decided to remain test optional or test blind. According to a recent survey, only 7% of admissions officers reported their schools were still requiring applicants to submit either ACT or SAT scores. Of the rest, 43% said their institutions were already test optional or test blind before the pandemic, and 50% said they had changed their application process to do away with testing requirements.

As Schmill explained in a March 2022 blog post, however, MIT is reinstating its testing requirements for the 2022-2023 cycle after conducting “a great deal of careful research.”

Stu Schmill, SB ’86, Dean of Admissions and Student Financial Services at MIT

“We don’t admit students by their test scores. We’re using them to validate academic preparedness for students, though there are many other ways that applicants can validate their academic preparedness,” said Schmill. “If they do well in advanced coursework in high school, that can be evidence of academic preparedness. But there are a lot of students out there who don’t have access to such coursework, and the SAT or ACT may be their best way to demonstrate their readiness.”

Powell agreed, adding: “It’s a question of what’s right for one’s institution at a point in time, and that question will have different answers at different times.”

Equitable access, now and in the future

Whether more universities decide to remain test optional or revive standardized testing requirements, Powell and Schmill agree that the future of higher education should and will be more equitable.

“One of the main challenges we have is identifying students who might not otherwise think they have a shot at applying to—let alone getting into—an MIT or a Brown,” said Powell. “And a lot of this work is trying to identify that talent, which is not concentrated in just one area. There’s talent all around the world.”

In addition to finding talent, Powell and Schmill also spoke about the importance of educating prospective students about the application process and enabling them to apply. Sometimes, this means offering an entirely new approach to admissions—like MIT’s creative portfolios, which allows researchers, artists, and makers to submit collections of their work for consideration.

“The MIT motto is ‘mens et manus,’ or ‘mind and hand,’ It’s a very hands-on place, where students like to make things,” said Schmill. “When we realized we were overlooking students who were doing things outside of standard classes and traditional activities, we created a portfolio system that allows them to submit evidence of their work.”

Other examples, like Brown’s efforts to combat “undermatching,” a well-documented phenomenon in which otherwise highly qualified prospective students from less affluent households or communities are discouraged from applying to competitive universities.

“It may not be at MIT or Brown, but these students will make incredible contributions to their communities, their careers, their families, and society,” said Powell. “We just want to provide access to under-resourced students who are really talented and really deserving of it.”

For more info Andrew Husband Senior Writer & Editor, OER (617) 715-5933