Penn State Admi$$ion$: The Changing Admissions Landscape in a Post-COVID Era

Last year, Penn State University President Eric Barron announced that standardized test scores (aka, the SAT Test) would not be required in admissions applications. The rationale behind that change was reasonable: due to COVID restrictions, the SAT Board drastically scaled back the opportunities for high school students to take the SAT, and many students might not have had the opportunity to provide standardized test scores for the 2020 admissions cycle.

Since then, President Barron has gone on to announce that standardized test scores will also not be required through AT LEAST the 2023 admissions cycle—and that he would like to eliminate them permanently. Given that the College Board has now adjusted testing procedures to ensure the health and safety of the students and educators,  and any student wishing to schedule and complete an SAT can do so, why eliminate the standardized test score requirement? And what will replace “standardized test scores” in the evaluation of prospective applicants?

For decades, Penn State—and every university with large enrollments—relied primarily on two metrics to determine acceptance: high school GPA, and Standardized Test Scores. While they may not be perfect, those two metrics historically provide a good (but not great) prediction of a prospective student’s academic potential. In addition, those metrics – the average GPA and Standardized Test Score of a University’s enrollees – are commonly used by prospective students, and others, as a measure of the University’s prestige and quality.

In broad strokes, there are three reasons that some universities – primarily “non-elite” universities and small boutique colleges – have eliminated the standardized test requirement:

  1. Those universities that eliminate the SAT requirement receive more applications. Not because the University has become more desirable, but because the process is now easier and cheaper – which is especially appealing for the not overly-motivated applicant. And University Presidents love to discuss the increases in their “number of applications received”.
  2. By dropping the Standardized Test Score requirement, the University’s reported “Average SAT Score” for accepted students will increase. If the reporting of SAT scores is optional, it doesn’t take a Merit Scholar to recognize that those students who score higher are going to tend to submit their scores, those who score lower will be more likely to not submit scores, thereby artificially inflating the reported average scores (because those with lower scores will simply never be a part of the reporting). For a university like Penn State, which has been dropping rapidly in “Average SAT Score” relative to its Big Ten peers, this gamesmanship carries a lot of appeal.
  3. It allows more freedom for the Administration to skew admissions offers in whatever directions they want. Without a stringent measurement, administrators are more free to slant admissions in any non-quantifiable direction, without having to justify their decisions on any relevant substantive basis—such as SAT scores.

All three of these issues are, most certainly, relevant to Penn State’s decision to implement SAT-Optional admissions. But we will focus here on the third rationale— the freedom to skew admissions.

So, how is Penn State going to determine acceptances, and proffer admissions, in the SAT-optional process? Without that quantitative measure available to screen all applicants, what “soft” criteria might Penn State utilize when deciding which applicants will receive an offer of admission?

Penn State President Eric Barron shed some light on that issue—maybe not intentionally—with his comments at the May 6th, 2021 PSU Board of Trustees Finance Committee meeting. Barron’s comments were not on the Committee’s published agenda, but you can view them here.

There are many interesting revelations to be gleaned from Barron’s comments regarding 2021 admissions in the SAT-optional world, but for now we will focus on just one of them: Barron’s announcement that while acceptances of In-State students remained flat (down a bit, but by just a couple of dozen students), the acceptance of out-of-state students increased dramatically (up another 10% in 2021).

This should not come as a surprise to those who have been following the actions of the current administration. For reasons that are both stark and disconcerting, admissions of in-state undergraduates at University Park have been “poached” for years. For years, more and more Out-of-State students have been admitted – displacing in-state applicants.

Not so long ago, University Park undergraduate enrollment was approximately 80% in-state (with 20% out-of-state/International). It is now approaching 50% in-state (with 50% Out-of-State/International).

It is also worthwhile, and important, to note that during this time of displacing in-state applicants with out-of-state applicants, Penn State’s academic standing within the Big Ten (as measured by the standardized test scores of incoming students) has been dropping—precipitously. Penn State has fallen from 4th in the Big Ten, to 10th in the Big Ten, with regard to the academic qualifications of incoming students.

So, why has Penn State instituted such a deliberate and dramatic shift away from in-state and towards out-of-state students? Penn State is, indeed, Pennsylvania’s flagship Land Grant university —whose primary mission is to “provide a quality, affordable education to the Sons and Daughters of Pennsylvania”.

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