Goucher College is lowering its application standards even further. Having dispensed with the SAT requirement in 2007, it’s now making transcripts optional, too. Students can now apply to Goucher by sending in two assignments from high school, at least one of them graded, and a video, of no more than two minutes, explaining how the applicant will fit in at Goucher. As Goucher’s new promotional video, touting its “totally unique way of applying to college,” says, “We want to know how you want to change the world.” The jury is still out on this approach, but so far it sounds misguided.
The debate over going test-optional pitted those who thought that colleges were simply trying to increase their applicant pool, and hence their selectivity and U.S. News rankings, and those who thought that colleges were reaching out to a population of applicants who could not afford an SAT or ACT coach but had otherwise performed well in high school. Those who favored the test-optional approach had at least this going for them: there was some reason to believe that standardized tests did not add much to high school GPA in predicting college success. A Bates College study, for example, found no significant differences in graduation rate or GPA between those who submitted scores and those who did not. A more recent study of “123,000 students at 33 institutions” had similar results. Whatever you make of such studies, at least those who favor SAT-optional can claim that they are concerned not only with drawing in applicants but also with drawing in applicants who are likely to graduate, rather than applicants who will rack up debt and fail to graduate.
Goucher simply has not addressed the glaring problem with their new policy: that there is some good reason to think that high school G.P.A, is our best predictor of college success and no reason to believe that the capacity to put together a two minute video is a predictor of success at all. Indeed, President José Antonio Bowen concedes that high school grades are predictors of how well a student will fare in school but adds: “they are predictors of how well you will do in school, not how well you will do in life.” Similarly, Scott Sibley, associate professor of chemistry and chair of the faculty told me in an e-mail that Goucher will “continue to admit most students through the more traditional application process,” but that “transcripts and GPA don¹t always tell the full story, and there are many reasons why a student may have a blip on their academic record.” He thinks that faculty, who have had an opportunity to weigh in about the new system, are “supportive of the video application,” in part because faculty “will work closely with the admissions office to evaluate applications for this alternative process.”
Set aside whether a two minute video and two high school assignments tell us a full story, much less “how well you will do in life,” or whether coaching is less effective for videos than it is for standardized tests and personal essays. When students are going deeply into debt in the hope of earning a degree, one would expect admissions departments to be deeply concerned about a student’s prospects of succeeding in school and of graduating on time. Schools concerned with drawing deserving applicants who are not strong academic performers must want at least to identify those students who will need additional help to get college ready. But, as Jerome Lucido, executive director of the University of Southern California Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice, asks in the InsideHigherEd story linked above, “without a transcript . . . [h]ow do you know what capabilities a student has?” That is a damaging question, even if Goucher plans to admit only a small number of students through the new procedure.
Because it is at least plausible that, the wide variability of high schools notwithstanding, high school G.P.A. measures capacities relevant to college success, such as the capacity to persevere through a long course of study, that standardized tests to not measure, advocates of test optional policies could always claim that they cared as much about getting students through as they cared about getting students in. At Goucher, although its new video claims that “you are more than just a number,” it will now be much harder to make that claim.