The Right Thing to Do

We have publicly recognized that years of achievement should not be negated by one Saturday morning.

By Martha Blevins Allman (’82, MBA ’92)

I have been asked to speak to you today on Wake Forest’s decision to make the SAT optional in the admissions process. I’ve been addressing that topic quite a bit recently and you and many other Wake Foresters have been thinking about it, talking about it and many of you have been e-mailing me about it.

Martha Allman

Martha Allman

Doubtlessly you have perused the numerous studies, articles, and data that have been provided on the Wake Forest Web site. So this morning I’m not going to show you charts, graphs, or regression analyses. I’m instead going to provide a narrative about the SAT decision, in my own words, which are those of a twenty-six year veteran of the Admissions Office, the coordinator of Wake Forest’s merit scholarship program and a proud alumna who profoundly loves Wake Forest.

Not long after President Hatch took office, he and I had breakfast together and he asked me, ‘What would you like to see happen in the Admissions Office in the future?” My mind raced as I thought of additional staff and cutting-edge technology, a new admissions building — material things — and then I stopped and thought a moment and I responded, “I believe that the admissions process in this country is broken and it is becoming more broken everyday. I’m concerned about really bright students who are falling through the cracks because they aren’t privileged enough or sophisticated enough to “play the game.”

“I’m concerned about the ranking guides, the proliferation of frivolous admissions applications, the money that is being spent to “package students” and the over-emphasis on standardized testing. What I would really like more than anything would be to see Wake Forest at the forefront of a national conversation on college admissions and I would like to see us out in front taking action to right some wrongs. I’d like to see Wake Forest stand up for fairness and individuality. Consequently, I would like to see us attract more diversity, (defined in its broadest sense ) and more students who seek diversity.”

He nodded. I took that as a good sign. We discussed the possibility of a national symposium on admissions and then went back to talking about financial aid and my lack of staff and all the day-to-day mundane stresses and immediate needs. But the philosophical discussion had begun. The seed was planted.

Time passed and my colleagues in the Admissions Office and I continued to read the Chronicle of Higher Education and talk with our peers at other institutions. We read about schools that were going test optional. We attended workshops exploring the state of admissions. I stood in hallways at conferences and talked with other veteran admissions officers who, like myself, were becoming increasingly concerned about current trends in our profession.

I received my MBA in the early ’90s during the heyday of TQM (Total Quality Management) so I’m all about “continuous improvement.” I am continually asking faculty members, “So how’s the Admissions Office doing? Are we sending you the right kinds of students? “Are there types of students that you would like to see more of in your classroom?” And the responses that I get are remarkably similar — ” For the most part, we love our students, they are exceptionally bright and diligent and they are genuinely good people but we really could use a little bit more creativity, more students who are willing to take academic risks, we want more diversity of thought, opinion and background in our classes.”

In a meeting with the faculty Committee on Admissions last winter I asked faculty members to assist us in creating the essay and short answer questions for our new admissions application. One professor said, “I want you to ask students in the application whether they see Wake Forest as a path or a destination. I see too many who see this place only as a stepping stone to something else that they perceive to be bigger and better, they aren’t taking the time to absorb and to become enriched by this wonderful place that is Wake Forest. We need more for whom this is a special destination.”

Periodically, we conduct surveys from students who were admitted to Wake Forest and did not enroll. A disturbing trend has been emerging of late. Many of these students, whom we wanted but lost, now tell us that they perceive Wake Forest as homogenous and thus less intellectually vibrant than the college they chose. As a matter of fact in our most recent study, 59 percent of those admitted students who chose not to enroll cited “lack of diversity” as an important factor in their decision-making. This appears particularly true of students to whom we award merit-based scholarships. The world is not standing still. Our peer institutions are seeking a diverse student body. Faculty understand the importance of diversity in the classroom. Bright students seek it on college campuses and employers know that the understanding of diverse viewpoints is critical to success in the marketplace and the world beyond our campus.

Last year we delved deeply into strategic planning as a college and as an admissions staff and in that process we discussed at length was how we might increase diversity (widely defined) on campus. As part of that discussion, Provost Jill Tiefenthaler and I began to discuss the role of the SAT in our decision-making. We examined SAT validity studies (which she knew a lot about it) and directed me to some fascinating research including our own Joseph Soares work, The Power of Privilege. Our new provost and I found ourselves in absolute agreement.

My staff and I reviewed with great interest the study published by the University of California in which they studied 78,000 students and found very little correlation between SAT scores and college performance. We also reviewed the Bates College data which they produced after 20 years of being “test optional.” Here were numbers that substantiated what we in admissions had suspected for years. Empirical evidence for what we knew in our heart and in our gut. The test that was supposed to “level the playing field” had quite the opposite effect.

We noted not only the apparent lack of predictive power that California found with the SAT and the correlation between socioeconomic status, race and scores but also viewed with interest Bates College’s concrete proof that SAT non-submitters fared just as well in college as those who submitted. GPA remained the best indication of college success and the SAT clearly showed racial and socioeconomic bias. Bates data also revealed that their non-submitters were more likely to major in fields that put premiums on creativity and originality. They found their applications from minority students and students from rural and blue-collar backgrounds increased when submission of the SAT became optional.

And we found a very interesting 2004 University of California study actually that found an inverse correlation between SAT scores and academic engagement. They found students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and those who were first generation college students spending more time on their studies, completing assigned reading and attending class at a higher level than their more advantaged counterparts. We all know stories of those who attended Wake Forest with us (or maybe even we ourselves) who came from modest backgrounds but had that fire in the belly that would propel them (or us) to excellence in the classroom and beyond. The SAT should not be a barrier to enrolling these students.

It’s really important for you to know that, as we read studies and crunched numbers, that we as an admissions staff also thought long and hard about the real flesh and blood students that we were seeing along the way.

I thought about The Wake Forest senior with the 1160 SAT whom we admitted because the admissions officer who interviewed him said he could be President someday. A faculty member recently told me that this particular young man had last semester produced the finest research with her that she had seen in years.

I received a phone call from an alumna who told me that her daughter was in the top 3 percent of her class at one of the most competitive high schools in North Carolina. When she graduates this year, she will have taken 12 Advanced Placement Courses and has scored either 4s or 5s on all the tests. She is an accomplished athlete and artist … and she was reluctant to apply to Wake Forest because her highest SAT is about 200 points below our average.

I thought about the young man that I interviewed from an excellent private day school — top of the class, strong SAT scores, interested in international studies who asked me if he should take an SAT prep class to improve his scores before applying Early Decision to Wake Forest. He told me that his best friend had been paying a private SAT tutor $100 an hour since his freshman year to coach him for the test.

Think of the hours and the dollars that students are spending across the country to prepare for this test. Wouldn’t that time really be better spent reading Yeats or the newspaper, exploring mathematics or even gazing at the stars? And what of the students who can’t afford the prep courses or the tutors or can’t afford to take the test multiple times to better their scores? How level is their playing field?

I thought of the first-generation college student entering Wake Forest this fall, the child of immigrant parents who has risen to the top of an intensely demanding International Baccalaureate program even though English is her second language, who charmed and overwhelmed the Wake Forest faculty members who met her during a scholarship competition-despite her SAT score of just over 1200.

Could we use a few more students like these at Wake Forest? Absolutely.

Might a few more of them consider applying to Wake Forest if they knew their test scores would not be considered? Surely.

Would an SAT optional policy cause our admissions standards to decline? No, I expect competition would stiffen and thus we would be enrolling even stronger students.

Would taking a few more students who are first-generation college or from poor families destroy what we hold dear about this place? Did it ruin Wake Forest when we chose to admit women, or students of color? I think not, regardless of what they look like or what their parents do for a living, we would continue to enroll the students who embody the best of what Wake Forest embodies, students who are noble, hardworking, strong of mind and character. Regardless of race or family income students are attracted to Wake Forest for all the same reasons, the same reasons that we were — its academic strength, its sense of community, its vitality and energy. Will any of those Wake Forest qualities change because we have admitted some students who are at the top of their classes but who have not excelled on the SAT? Surely not.

Would white upper-middle-class students with high scores be driven away by more diversity? Quite the contrary, I think.

I should also tell you that while we were talking and thinking and reading validity studies we were also experiencing as a backdrop a 27 percent increase in applications resulting in the largest number of admissions applications in Wake Forest history. I have been asked if we made this decision as a publicity stunt just to increase applications and have honestly replied that after reviewing 9,000 this year we have about as many applications as we can handle. Don’t get me wrong, we always want more excellent applications, but more for the sake of more — certainly not.

Yet even with this increase, we were still able to personalize the process, every application was read by at least two admissions officers, many by more than three and many by our full committee in those late hours of deliberation in the cold of February and March. As we reviewed applicants in committee, we discussed how important interview information was and how difficult it was to make hair-splitting decisions among so many well qualified students. We also saw how tempting it was to let the SAT be the crutch, the deciding factor in these cases. I will confess to you that at times we let 30 points on the SAT make a decision, and that my friends, is the wrong thing to do.

So, after months of discussion and study and reflection we decided it was time to stand up on the side of fairness. We decided that it was time for Wake Forest to take yet another of its historical “bold moves.” We decided it was time to make standardized tests optional for admission.

We took our big bold idea to our Board of Trustees, to the faculty Committee on Admissions, the Committee on Academic Affairs, and the President’s cabinet. Everyone agreed — it was a big, bold, move — like moving from Wake Forest, North Carolina, to Winston-Salem, admitting women, desegregating, breaking governance ties with the Baptists, or giving every student a computer … but just like those decisions, making the SAT optional for admission was the right thing to do and it was a very Wake Forest thing to do. It makes a statement that we aren’t content to simply bemoan the state of college admissions, we are going to start doing something about it. We are going to stand up and say that standardized testing is flawed and it should not be a barrier to outstanding students. As a professional admissions officer and as an alumna of Wake Forest, that makes me intensely proud.

Many of you have expressed the same pride that Wake Forest is once again in the forefront. Editorial writers and educators have hailed our decision and encouraged others to “follow the Deacons.” TheJournal of Blacks in Higher Education has lauded our change in policy and community-based organizations that help disadvantaged students have contacted us with praise and excitement. Even Lou Dobbs was on our side. While we could have just quietly de-emphasized the SAT in our admissions process, we chose instead to send a clear message to those high achieving students for whom standardized testing is the only weakness in their admissions application. We have publicly recognized that years of achievement should not be negated by one Saturday morning.

While some have rejoiced in our message, others have been concerned. Despite evidence to the contrary, both anecdotal and empirical, the SAT has come to stand for intelligence and potential. Let me assure you, just like Bates and other institutions which have made the SAT optional, we will monitor our progress closely and make certain that our academic standards are enhanced and our student body is enriched by this decision. We would never allow Wake Forest’s standards to be compromised. I would never allow it.

So how will this work practically in the Admissions Office? How will things be different? First of all, we say to students, if you have taken an SAT or an SAT II subject test and you are proud of the score, send it to us. As always, we will consider everything a student sends to us as part of her admissions application. For example, in the past, a student who excelled in a particular subject area often sent us scores from an SAT II subject test in that area. It was a plus for that student’s application but it in no way hurt another student who did not send a similar test. Bowdoin College tells us that 80 percent of their applicants submit SAT scores regardless of their test optional policy and we expect our numbers will be similar. Most of our applicants are good students and good test takers; it’s those who are good students but not so good test takers that we hope will now consider Wake Forest.

High school performance, while always a vital part of the admissions decision, will now receive even more attention. We will carefully look at each high school, strength of curriculum, and student performance. We understand that grade inflation exists and that by no means are all high schools created equally. We will evaluate students based on their surroundings and how they have achieved in their individual school environments.

We will look carefully at achievements outside the classroom. We will not seek a laundry list of activities but will look for focus, commitment and talent. We will seek students who seek the world beyond themselves and value service and compassion.

We will now be strongly recommending a personal interview. We have two new staff members on board whom we decided to hire when our applications hit 9,000, and they will join eleven other admissions officers (myself included) who will be interviewing in the Admissions Office. Last month we conducted 280 personal interviews and expect the July and August numbers to be much larger. We are contacting former admissions counselors who are now volunteers in the field and will be brushing up their interviewing skills to assist us across the country.

Our IS innovators are also working on some fascinating “virtual interview” scenarios for students who because of distance and or financial reasons cannot afford a visit to campus. This project is in embryonic stages but it is really cutting edge. We have also reworked our admissions application with some (we believe) creative and provocative questions that will provide information about a student which will go beyond objective measures. Questions such as “Define cool.” “What one thing have you learned today?” “Describe what’s outside your front door and how you would like to change it”, and my seasoned favorite “What outrages you?”

We want to make an already individualized process even more so, and we want to base our decisions on things that matter. It’s the Wake Forest thing to do. We are glad to be pioneers when the cause is just. My staff and I are energized and confident and we look forward to an exciting year. Next year, same time, same station, I’ll be back to report on how this decision has affected our process and our student body.

As many of you have said in e-mails and calls to me over the past month — it is a wonderful time to be a Demon Deacon!

Martha Blevins Allman (’82, MBA ’92) is Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Wake Forest. These remarks were first presented at the Summer Leadership Conference on July 11, 2008.

Categories: Admissions