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Duke University Tried Test-Optional Admissions And Got 10,000 More Applicants

Scenic arches in fall, on west campus
Julie Schoonmaker
Duke University
Scenic arches in fall, on west campus

Duke University saw a significant increase in the number of undergraduate students applying for admission this fall, with about 10,000 more applicants than the year before. One major factor for the influx is that the university made standardized test scores optional on applications for the first time.

Duke's dean of Undergraduate Admissions, Christoph Guttentag, says he was surprised to see applications rise by about 25%. WUNC's Liz Schlemmer spoke with Guttentag about what this experience could mean for a policy long-debated across higher education.

This interview has been edited for brevity.

There's been a debate in higher education over using test-optional admissions policies. Can you describe the debate?

The role of standardized tests, in general, has been something that's been discussed for decades, really. You've got many, many different colleges using these scores in many different ways and no single approach.

Part of the challenge is that there's a correlation between family income, family resources and standardized test scores. Because of the perceived and sometimes actual role of standardized tests in college admissions, there are students who don't apply to certain colleges because of their concern that their test scores might make them less competitive.

The ability for students to choose whether or not to submit scores reduces barriers to students from all kinds of backgrounds in deciding where to apply to college. But test scores do add information that admissions officers find useful in assessing a student's preparation, and how a student compares to the applicant pool as a whole.
Why did Duke decide to be test-optional now and why have we seen that from other colleges and universities recently?

Everybody will agree that 2020 was unlike any year that any of us had experienced. In the realm of college admissions, one of the effects was the dramatic decrease in the opportunities for students to take an ACT or SAT test, starting from the middle of their junior year through their senior.
Like many of our peer schools, we felt that we didn't want that lack of opportunity to be a deciding factor for students in terms of their decision whether to apply to college and certainly whether to apply to our colleges.
You also saw an influx in applicants for undergraduate admission this year — do you see that as related?
We saw in one year, essentially, an increase of 25%. In our applicants, we went from 40,000 to 50,000 applicants in a single year. I don't remember the last time we saw an increase of more than 10 or 12% in a single year and even that's unusual.

There are students — wonderful students, talented students, interesting students — who I think choose not to apply to some colleges because of their standardized test scores. The permission not to submit scores, makes it easier for those students to look at themselves and to say, you know, "I deserve to apply to these colleges."

And I'm going, "Oh, I think a large part of it was the test-optional policy."
What have you learned from being test-optional? Do you see it as a useful policy for the future?
We certainly learned that we were able to, we feel, fairly assess students in the absence of a standardized test score. There were certainly some students where we wish we'd had scores and we didn't.

But overwhelmingly, we felt that the absence of scores was not a dramatic factor in making our decisions. Now, what's going to be different next year as compared to this year? My hope is that the opportunities for students to take the SAT or the ACT will return as people are vaccinated.

So next year, what's going to be interesting is that whether a student submits a standardized test score or not will be more a matter of choice, rather than a limitation.
Is there anything interesting you can tell me about this freshly admitted class? Is it larger or more diverse or in any way different from before?
Well, this class is not larger. The decision was made to keep this first-year class at its normal size. So we expect around 1,700 first-year students.

I don't know yet exactly what shape it will take, because while we've admitted students now the ball is in their court. Now they get to choose whether they enroll or not.
Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio. To see more, visit WUNC.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Policy Reporter, a fellowship position supported by the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. She has an M.A. from the UNC Chapel Hill School of Media & Journalism and a B.A. in history and anthropology from Indiana University.