Is it time to kill the ACT and SAT?

It’s a valid question. But even as universities make temporary moves to be test-optional in light of current events, these tests still play a significant role in college admissions.

More colleges have gone “test-optional,” accepting students without a test score. For example, in Nebraska, Peru, Wayne, and Chadron State have been test-optional for years. Creighton transitioned in 2019. In February this year, the three University of Nebraska campuses announced that students will be considered for admission without a test score if they are ranked in the top half of their graduating class or earn a 3.0 GPA.

However, one fact is often misunderstood as more schools update their policies: test-optional really only applies to students willing to pay full price or to those eligible for significant need-based aid.

And that’s a big reason why the ACT and SAT are still important.

For those students seeking less than retail sticker price for college, increasing that ACT or SAT score remains the best paying job a high school student can have.

Most private and most public colleges still offer scholarships based on test scores. A National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) study found that nearly four out of five colleges use standardized test scores as an eligibility criterion for merit aid.

Staying with Nebraska, the grid below shows how the tuition cost at Nebraska’s public universities and state colleges should decrease thanks to a higher test score. By the way, for out-of-state students, the state college prices also apply, while the prices for the three universities are only slightly higher. As the ACT or SAT score increases, the tuition decreases significantly at all six.

 

Here’s how a higher score lowers the tuition cost of some of Nebraska’s private colleges.

Why the ACT and SAT Matter at Test-Optional Colleges

Jumping that score remains the best paying job a high school student could have, even if they don’t need a score to get in. So seniors this fall should still prepare hard and get their maximum ACT or SAT score.

College-bound free-and-reduced lunch students should also prepare for the ACT or SAT because significant need-based eligibility does not guarantee significant need-based aid, a reality even before the pandemic tightened college budgets. Colleges have only finite funds for grants; applicants that demonstrate college-readiness through a score are likely to receive more of that aid. If two applicants with equal need and equal grades apply for aid, but one does not submit a score and one submits a ‘college-ready’ 25, which student should receive more aid?

This competitive advantage is one reason about 90% of applicants to the University of Chicago, a test-optional selective college, choose to submit their test scores.

There is also the issue of class placement. Some universities require aspiring engineering majors to have at least a 24 on their ACT. And an ACT score of 22 or higher should waive most two- and four-year college applicants out of freshmen year remedial classes, the high school do-over classes that cost money, offer no college credit, and shrink the likelihood of college graduation.

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Optional is a misleading word. Extracurricular activities are optional, but students should participate in them. Filling out the FAFSA is optional, but most families should submit one. Many colleges have gone test optional, but students should maximize their scores because test scores matter for those seeking merit scholarships, a freshmen year with no remedial classes, or a competitive advantage for need-based aid or selective college admissions. Let’s get the message out.