UNH considering eliminating test requirement for applicants

High school student Kyra Chen of Amherst works with test tutor Felix Alvarado at Straight “A” Academy in Merrimack in April 2019.

DURHAM — The University of New Hampshire’s flagship campus is joining more than 1,000 colleges nationwide that no longer require prospective students to submit standardized test scores when they apply.

Admissions officials believe high school GPAs and the other information included in college applications are better indicators of a student’s likely first-year success than SAT or ACT scores. They also hope that eliminating the standardized test requirement will increase the size and diversity of the school’s applicant pool.

Just under 20,000 people applied to become students at UNH for this upcoming academic year. A target class size of incoming freshmen is 3,000.

“As public institutions, we are very focused on providing access for New Hampshire students, and thus we tend to serve a relatively high percentage of first-generation college students, for whom standardized admissions tests can be perceived as a barrier,” University System of New Hampshire Chancellor Todd Leach said in a statement. “We have also found that high school GPA, performance in early college courses, and other factors can be better determinants.”

Rob McGann, director of admissions at UNH in Durham, agrees. He said the new policy goes into effect for students entering college in the fall of 2020.

McGann explained that admissions officials are trying to determine what a student’s potential outcome could be in their first year of studies when examining their application. SAT and ACT scores do not reflect that, or whether a student will graduate from an academic institution, he said.

“After the first year of college, there are a whole host of variables that determine how well they do in year two, three and four,” he said.

McGann said that to his knowledge, UNH has never had a minimum required standardized test score for acceptance in Durham.

Plymouth State University and Granite State College are already test-optional.

Matt Wallace, Plymouth State’s interim director of admissions, says the response from parents and students has been positive.

“If (a university is) going to switch to test-optional, it should be a commitment to a holistic approach, not just trading one score for another,” he said. “You take the student’s entire experience into consideration.”

National research and the experience of several local universities supports these claims and suggests that test-optional policies attract more applicants.

A study of nearly 1 million college applicants published last year by the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that students from minority groups, low-income households and families without a history of college attendance were less likely to submit test scores, but graduated at rates equal to or greater than those who did submit SAT or ACT results.

“We believe, based on our data, that there’s a tendency that it will truncate your applicant pool by requiring test scores — that there are people who will not apply because they find the test scores too intimidating, or who do apply, but will not get admitted,” said Steve Syverson, assistant vice chancellor for enrollment management at the University of Washington Bothell and one of the study’s authors.

“The strongest correlation with testing is the affluence and education level of the family,” he added. “If you come from a family that is less affluent or well-educated, you start out with a systematic bias against you.”

Several New Hampshire colleges have operated with test-optional policies for years. Both Saint Anselm College and Colby-Sawyer College stopped requiring SAT and ACT scores about a decade ago.

“Back then, the impetus was related to some research done about how well the students we enrolled were doing here … and it was pretty clear that the GPA they received in high school was a much better predictor (of freshman year GPA and graduation rates) than test scores,” said Eric Nichols, Saint Anselm’s vice president for enrollment and dean of admissions.

Saint Anselm’s overall number of applications increased from about 3,600 to 4,100 after the new policy went into effect, and a larger percentage are now students of color, low income or the first in their families to attend college, Nichols added. And during the last two years, Saint Anselm has achieved record graduation and student retention rates.

About 65 percent of the school’s applicants still provide test scores voluntarily.

Colby-Sawyer has also seen an increase in applicants over the 10 years since it adopted a test-optional policy, and around 40 percent of its enrollees are first-generation college students. During that same period, the average GPA of its students has risen from 3.03 to just above 3.32, said Anna Miner, the school’s vice president for admissions and financial aid.

Demographic trends in northern New England — including a shrinking population of high school graduates who go on to attend four-year colleges — are fueling competition among institutions. The issue is particularly pronounced in New Hampshire, which sends a higher percentage of its high school graduates out of state for college than any other state.

Some educators see the move to test-optional policies as a play to attract more applicants, and with them more prestige and tuition money rather than an attempt to actually improve the admission process.

“Part of the reason standardized tests were put in place in the first place was to measure ‘What does a GPA mean at this (high) school?’ ” said Felix Alvarado, a tutor and owner of Straight “A” Academy in Merrimack, who also helps students prepare for standardized tests.

“This is one of the reasons that standardized tests have worked for forever — we know that students, if they’re nice kids and hard workers, their GPAs can be biased towards the positive,” he added. “For the kids who are still very bright, these standardized tests give them an opportunity to shine. ... Have you ever heard anyone get a high score on the SAT and say, ‘I just got lucky?’ If they do well, it’s because they’re plenty bright.”

Syverson said that research showing the positive benefits of test-optional admissions policies also demonstrates that it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. Some schools, or programs within schools, may find that the standardized test scores are actually valuable predictors of student success.

On average, UNH accepts about 15,000 students a year. About 35 percent of New Hampshire students who get in decide to attend UNH. That percentage drops to 15 to 16 percent for out-of-state students who are admitted.

The overall estimated undergraduate cost for 2019-20 is $34,250 for residents, $46,355 for regional students and $51,910 for nonresidents, according to UNH’s website. These costs include tuition, fees, room and board, books, supplies, transportation and $2,201 in miscellaneous expenses.