Opening doors: Test optional admissions and the For Utah Scholarship

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.

Steve Robinson, senior associate vice president for enrollment management, is leading two initiatives to ease access to the University of Utah. The ACT & SAT admissions tests are now optional. And the For Utah Scholarship has receiving strong interest from Utah high school students who want to attend the state’s flagship university. Learn why the U launched these initiatives and what they mean for students. Recorded on Monday, July 28, 2020. Thanks to Brooke Adams and Dave White for technical assistance. Music by Taylor Hartley.

President Ruth Watkins: Welcome to the U Rising Podcast. We're back after a brief summer hiatus and looking forward to more conversations with the people who are helping the U achieve great things. My name is Ruth Watkins. I'm the president of the U and my guest today is Steve Robinson. Steve is the senior associate vice president for enrollment management. Steve, warmest welcome!

Steve Robinson: Thank you. Glad to be here.

President Watkins: You joined us just a little bit over a year ago from the University of Oregon, and in that time you've launched some really remarkable initiatives, certainly the For Utah Scholarship and what we're calling “test optional.” I think it might be good if you started out telling us a little bit about the test optional initiative—what that is and, of course, all of us who were college students, we're pretty used to taking things like SATs and ACTs as part of our college enrollment process. So, I think people would be really interested in knowing what's happening and why.

Steve Robinson: Sure. Well, thanks for the opportunity to discuss these big issues. I think the thing is we all take for granted that the ACT and SAT have always been there. As you say, for most of us, it has always been a part of all the college admissions process. It's entered the mythology around it.

However, for many years now, the test optional movement has been gaining strength where certain institutions decided that the SAT and ACT, for whatever reason, wasn't the best indicator. As schools and businesses started closing this winter, I think we were all very focused on those immediate issues, but there were these other things that were going on behind the scenes. And one of them was the ability to take the standardized tests. And that ability to take the test has really caused the test optional movement to gain much strength in the last six months.

What started happening about February is the testing centers began closing. We saw that nationally there were a lot fewer opportunities to take the exams. And these were, for the most part, rising juniors who would have been standing for the exams at that point. Most seniors had already tested. So we're really looking at the class that was entering Fall of ’21. Well, suddenly, they have this huge time period where they could not take the examination. They just weren't offered from February up until really very recently. I think some of the tests began again in June, maybe early July.

So, access to the exams themselves was in doubt. And then there has been a fair amount of instability even now that the tests are available again. What we're seeing happen is because of sort of a glut of test takers out there among the now rising seniors, there is a hard sort of a scarcity, if you will, of testing opportunities.

If you're look at this nationally, there's a lot of places where you're having to wait until October, November, to take the SAT or the ACT for the first time. And that's very different than anything that we've ever seen. And it's causing quite a bit of anxiety among high school seniors about can they get to the exam? What if they need to retake it? It's just brought on a lot of issues.

And then even with the testing centers reopening, because of social distancing, a lot of those testing centers are at reduced capacity. Again, exaggerating the demand even more because there just aren't enough seats in those test centers.

So, we began looking at the test optional movement in response to this. We wanted to make sure that the ACT or the SAT didn't stop a high school senior from applying to University of Utah.

What we came up with was in this coming year, the first year of the pilot, we're going to be looking a lot at grade-point average. We've always looked at that, but it certainly would become a little bit more important. At the U, we've always had holistic admissions, and we're still going to use that process, meaning that we always looked beyond the numbers to make an admissions decision.

But in this situation, we're going to allow students to opt out, if they choose to, of not supplying the standardized test scores that we're used to. And the two-year pilot will give us a lot of time to assess what that impact is on our admissions process and that student's success here at the U. And also, hopefully, will give us time to get past COVID and give some stability back to the testing environments themselves, to see what things actually look like in two years.

President Watkins: I really applaud your creativity and innovation. This is a very unprecedented situation with the pandemic that has upended many parts of our work and lives. And, certainly, it's upended the ACT and SAT as well. I think the mission of access is such an important part of what we do at the U. Making these admissions tests optional seems such the right thing to do for so many reasons for our students, and keeping our doors open for everyone.

I understand that there are some programs that may want to still see test scores, and there are some students who may want to submit them. So maybe talk just a little bit about places where we would look for test scores if they are available.

Steve Robinson: Sure. Well, I think one of the first places to look are merit scholarships. With it being a pilot, and year one of our pilot, we are still transitioning to an environment where we don't have those test boards with regularity. One of the areas where we felt it still was most critical work was around merit scholarships. So, we still are asking students who want to be considered for merit scholarships to submit standardized test scores. Also, for the direct admissions program in engineering, we are also asking for test scores for that program as well.

I do, again, want to add that this is sort of for year one as we transition to this new environment as well. Those are some of the areas where we would definitely want to make sure students were aware that if they wanted to be considered for merit-based scholarships or for the engineering program, that they make sure that they still get an opportunity to take the examinations.

But even beyond that, throughout the rest of our pilot, there's always going to be a couple populations that we want to make sure that they always will take these standardized tests just because of the unique nature of their applications. Applicants who are applying who did not come through a traditional high school program and have a GED, for example. We don't have a GPA to go off of there and the holistic admissions process would be possible, but it certainly is better if we have some numerical metrics to sort of bake into the process. And this is why we ask that GED recipients, homeschooled students and graduates of non-accredited high schools all supply their test scores throughout the rest of our pilot. This will help us make a really good determination of their readiness for college. And it's simply because they don't always have a GPA or a GPA that is sort of similar to that of other students applying that we felt that this was really important.

An additional step, because we do have these populations that we're asking for the test score submissions, is that we've adjusted our deadlines quite a bit. Last year, November 1 was our deadline for honors and for priority scholarship consideration and early admissions decisions, if you will. We've moved that back—well, both have been moved back actually. December 1 is our new deadline for honors consideration as well as for the early admissions decisions, and for merit scholarships we've moved that deadline all the way back to February 1. And we're doing all of this to make sure that students have time to take the exam and maybe take it twice if they need to.

Again, there was this issue nationally where there's just a scarcity of possible times to take the test. It's been less true in Utah, but certainly if you look across the country, that has been a big issue.

And I believe that our high school guidance counselors in the state, across the nation, would tell you that there's a lot of anxiety out there around this. So, this is our attempt to try and make sure that those certain populations that are still submitting test scores have more time.

President Watkins: I think that's great. And I also want to note for anybody who's anxious or worried that need-based scholarships, of course, would not require those tests. And there are many paths into a very welcoming University of Utah that wants students to apply and be here.

And so even if some doors may not be open, many others will be open. And I really appreciate your efforts to give this a try and see how we do. What a great time for students to stay in school, be in school, and complete their degrees. As many of us say, the pandemic is temporary, we hope, but a college degree will last a lifetime. And so we really want to encourage our students to stay in school. Tell me about summer enrollment. How's that been this year?

Steve Robinson: Summer enrollment's been very strong. It looks like we're going to be up in the final analysis about 5%, give or take. And that's great. Seeing some nice gains there in terms of student possibilities for coming in and taking classes to hasten their graduation. That is always a wonderful thing. So, we're really excited about what is happening in summer.

And I think you're absolutely right. This is the time to be going to school. There's a lot of concern out there about what will students do? We don't have a way to project student behavior in the wake of a pandemic, but I always think this is the time where maybe it's always good to go with what's tried and true. As you said, the college degree is always going to be valuable—during the pandemic, post pandemic. We know that that's always something that's going to be there.

So, when there's economic instability out there, when jobs are scarce, when other opportunities are just not as available as they would have been without the pandemic, why not going to school? Why not make sure that you're advancing your career and your professional life through a degree, a certificate, an advanced degree even? This is the perfect time to be going back to school or staying in school and completing your degree if you're a student.

President Watkins: Degree holders, people with a post-secondary credentials, are less likely to be unemployed and have higher lifelong earnings. This will stay with you as a benefit throughout your life. So, our message to students and families is come back, be in school, stay in school, finish that degree.

I know you've worked hard to help make those opportunities possible through funding and through assistance to students. And we know that there are financial barriers that are real, that get in people's way of completing their degrees. So, I'd love for you to talk a little bit about the For Utah Scholarship. This is the second big initiative we wanted to hear about from you that is so meaningful for so many people. Tell us about that scholarship and how it's helping Utahns come to the U.

Steve Robinson: Yeah. Happy to. Well, I think that the For Utah Scholarship is a great partnership between the U and the state. We found ways to combine forces, to offer a fully paid path to graduation for students who are Pell-eligible. What For Utah does is it looks at first, Utah residents who have at least a 3.2 GPA coming out of high school and who are Pell-eligible. There are no other criteria for consideration. Those are the big three. We don't require an additional application, as long as they're admitted to the U and they fill out a FAFSA, we do the rest.

And this is going to make a huge difference. We know that this is one of our most vulnerable populations in terms of economic disruption. And that was true even before the pandemic and it's certainly much more aggregated now.

So, For Utah comes into a place and it basically takes tuition and fees off the table. That is, for four years, a student who receives this, as long as they meet those eligibility criteria or maintain a 3.0 and are full time, will get three or four years basically of not being charged any tuition or fees, which is amazing and wonderful.

And I'm really excited to say that it looks like we're going to have a great class. We're looking at just over 830 students right now that have indicated they're going to be enrolled in the U that are eligible for For Utah. And we're thrilled about that. We're looking forward to an even bigger class next year, judging by what we're hearing from the guidance counselor community in the state, we know there's a lot of interest. And I believe that this rising senior class, we're going to see a lot more students coming to the U via the For Utah scholarship, which will be wonderful.

And to reemphasize a point that you made earlier, the For Utah scholarship, like the rest of our need-based aid does not require the ACT or the SAT to apply at the university. This is one thing to remember is that the For Utah is always out there as an option, and we'll do all the heavy lifting for them. If they're eligible, all they have to do is apply and fill out the FAFSA and we'll take it from there.

President Watkins: Steve, this is such a powerful initiative. I am so grateful that you came to the University of Utah, and that you have brought the For Utah scholarship to life. When I think about 830 students joining us because this scholarship is available for them, that is transformative. We truly have the capacity to change people's lives.

And I thank you for coming to the U, for trusting the U, and I thank all those 830 students and families for choosing the U, and joining us on this important journey. It's been just delightful to talk with you today. Thank you for your time and for all your creative ideas that will make a difference in lives for years to come.

Listeners, thanks for joining us again today. I hope you will listen to the next episode of the U Rising Podcast. Thanks so much.