Student in class

By becoming America’s first highly selective national university to make college entrance exam scores optional for admission, Wake Forest is betting on a high school track record over a one-time test outcome, banking on building a more balanced student body, and bucking a trend — again — for the sake of Pro Humanitate.

By David Fyten

If there’s one thing that can be said about Wake Forest, it’s that it’s never been afraid to buck trends and blaze trails. From its defiance of the Baptists over the teaching of evolution in the twenties and the transplantation of its campus in the fifties to its severance of its governance relationship with the Baptist State Convention in the eighties and its decision in the nineties to become the first among its peer institutions to supply every freshman with a laptop computer, the University has been willing to step out front, take calculated risks, and act contrary to convention when the principle or objective in question held great potential.

Wake Forest is putting its propensity for intrepid behavior to the test again — this time, literally. Beginning with the class that will enter in fall 2009, it will become the first among the top thirty national universities in the country as ranked by U.S. News and World Report to make standardized entrance tests optional for undergraduate admission. Prospective enrollees, who in the past were required to include their score on the SAT or ACT as part of their application package, can instead decide if they want to submit it for consideration.

In announcing the policy in June, the University proclaimed its intention to encourage more applications from talented and motivated young people who might have more modest standardized test scores but possess exemplary high school records. Curriculum and grades, along with extracurricular activities, writing ability, and evidence of character and creative talent will remain the primary criteria for admission. The goal is to evaluate students on a personal basis and accept the most promising without compromise regarding ability or tolerance of diminished performance.

For Wake Forest, there are costs involved, and possibly risks. By attracting a larger proportion of students with low-to-moderate-income backgrounds, the policy could require more funds for financial aid and tax its capacity to sustain its policy of admitting students without regard to their ability to pay. Without the wholesale winnowing that standardized test scores afford, the admissions process will rely more on personal interviews and essays, which will be more time-intensive and have staff implications if applications increase. There is a chance that, to some, “test-optional” might equate with “less selective.” Some might even speculate that by adopting the policy, Wake Forest is hoping it can report a higher overall score average to the guides that rank colleges and thus improve its national standing.

Wake Forest has weighed the risks and anticipated the challenges. Enlarging the financial aid endowment will be the top priority of its forthcoming capital campaign. Already accustomed to devoting proportionately more attention to each application than do larger institutions that garner more, the admissions office in recent months has added two staff members and is evaluating a host of innovative supplementary strategies, including a virtual online interview and a national network of trained alumni who would interview applicants at off-campus locations. The wealth of statistical documentation that grades and strength of curriculum combined provides the most accurate predictor of college performance weighs heavily against notions of compromised selectivity. And to insure that the data it submits to outside agencies is as complete as possible, the University will ask those students who chose not to submit scores during the admissions process to supply them after they are accepted and before they enroll, and report all the scores.

The administration is viewing test-optional as something of an experiment as well as an adventure. Over the next four or five years, it will be compiling data and analyzing outcomes to correlate the relationship between the test-optional policy and the grades and other academic indicators of students who do and do not submit scores. The University will keep an open mind, but the data already compiled by other test-optional colleges strongly predict a positive outcome.

“The admissions process has to be about building the best and most balanced class we can,” says Wake Forest Provost Jill Tiefenthaler. “Academic merit is clearly the most important factor, but socioeconomic balance, gender balance, special talents, and variety of interests are also important. Students are telling us with increasing frequency that they want their college experience to reflect the world in which they will live and work.

“Reliance on the SAT and other standardized tests for admission is a major barrier to access for many worthy students,” she adds. “By taking this step at Wake Forest, we want to remove that barrier.”

Go to part:

1. A Lasting Legacy
2. The Early Years
3. Building the University

Thomas K. Hearn, Jr., who died on Aug. 18, led Wake Forest to national prominence during his 22 years as president, from 1983 to 2005
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