Brown Reinstates SAT/ACT Requirement

Brown aims to promote diversity while mandating standardized tests and maintaining Early Decision and legacy admissions policies. Will it work?
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D., is a senior writer with BestColleges. He has 30 years of experience in higher education as a university administrator and faculty member and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. A former columnist for The Chronicle ...
Updated on March 14, 2024
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  • Starting in fall 2024, Brown University will require students to submit SAT or ACT scores.
  • Brown becomes the third Ivy League school, following Yale and Dartmouth, to reinstate standardized testing requirements.
  • The university also announced it will continue to offer an Early Decision option and maintain legacy preferences.
  • Brown admits that legacy admissions hampers efforts to promote student diversity.

Brown University has become the latest highly selective institution — and third Ivy, following Dartmouth College and Yale University — to reinstate standardized testing requirements, beginning next fall.

The university's announcement also includes news on its Early Decision and legacy admissions policies, both of which they'll maintain, at least for now.

Let's take a closer look at how Brown reached its often conflicting conclusions.

Standardized Tests Can Level Playing Fields

Like hundreds of other colleges, Brown suspended its standardized testing requirements at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, about 40% of applicants have opted not to submit SAT or ACT scores, notes the university's "Ad Hoc Committee on Admissions Policies" report summarizing six months of data analysis and deliberations at President Christina H. Paxson's request.

Among those who did submit scores, the committee found that scores were a "strong predictor of a student's performance once enrolled, and of their capacity to succeed in a rigorous academic environment."

That finding aligns with a recent report from Opportunity Insights, which concluded that test scores more accurately predict academic success at selective colleges than do high school grades.

At the same time, the committee feared some students from less-advantaged backgrounds were hurting their chances of admission by not submitting scores, even if those scores fell below Brown's median.

"[S]trong testing, interpreted in context, may actually serve to demonstrate their ability to succeed at Brown — and the lack of scores may mean that admissions officers hesitate to admit them," the report contends.

Yale offered similar arguments for adopting a "test-flexible" policy beginning next fall, requiring students to submit SAT/ACT scores or scores from the International Baccalaureate or Advanced Placement exams. So did Dartmouth, which became the first Ivy to return to standardized testing.

Columbia, meanwhile, remains permanently test-optional.

To make its intent clear to potential applicants, Brown is promoting a "testing in context" approach that lets applicants know how scores are considered in a holistic assessment of an applicant's portfolio.

The reinstatement also comes at a time when Brown is expecting more international applicants following its decision to become need-blind for international students starting next fall. This new policy will trigger an "increase in applicants from schools with which the admissions office is unfamiliar and who present transcripts that are more difficult to interpret."

Standardized tests will help Brown solve those admissions puzzles.

Early Decision Applicants Academically Stronger

The ad hoc committee was also charged with recommending the fate of Brown's Early Decision policy.

Under binding Early Decision programs, accepted applicants must commit to attending the university and withdraw applications to other institutions.

Roughly half of Brown's recent entering classes have come in through Early Decision. Those who do have stronger academic records, on average, and are more likely to be legacies.

The report also notes that Early Decision pools are less diverse than those in the Regular Decision rounds in terms of race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Students who apply early are "less likely to be from historically underrepresented groups or be low-income, first-generation, or international applicants."

However, Brown remains confident in its ability to "identify and admit a strongly diverse cohort of highly qualified students in a manner that reflects the university's commitments to excellence, access, and diversity."

That's partly because of its ample financial aid program. One criticism of binding Early Decision programs is that they don't allow accepted students to compare financial aid offers and choose the most affordable option.

Yet Brown claims "the generous aid awards" students receive in the Early Decision round are the same as the corresponding awards offered to Regular Decision students.

"We're confident that retaining Early Decision will benefit a broad range of admitted students who gain the assurance of making their college decision early with the knowledge that Brown's financial aid will meet full demonstrated need," Brown Provost Francis J. Doyle III said in a statement.

"Early Decision helps us enroll extraordinarily talented students whose enthusiasm to earn a Brown degree makes clear they'll be active, engaged members of our academic community."

Legacy Admissions Hinders Diversity

The committee's third recommendation pertains to what it calls "family connections," a term referring to legacies (children of alumni) and children of faculty and staff. The latter group is rather small in any given year.

But the more salient argument involves legacies. Brown claims the share of legacy applicants has decreased by about one-quarter over the last six years and that only 8% of students in the Class of 2027 were legacies.

As with Early Decision admits, legacies have academic records that are "stronger than that of average matriculants" and are more apt to accept offers of admission (which, like Early Decision, boosts the university's yield rate). Legacies also "create a sense of community and loyalty among Brown graduates."

Still, the report notes, "removing legacy preferences could lead to somewhat more diversity in the group of admitted students."

The committee's analysis suggests that "admitting fewer legacy students could potentially increase the numbers of low-income and first-generation students, and students from underrepresented groups, by a modest amount."

Preferential admissions policies, the committee concedes, raise "complicated questions about equity and access, about merit and unearned advantage, about the tangible and intangible impact of affinity, loyalty and community — and about how to weigh compelling but competing values."

Yet, at least for now, the university's legacy policy remains intact.

One counterargument the report advances is that abolishing legacy preferences would eliminate an advantage for children of minority alums "at the moment when the applicant pool is beginning to reflect the more diverse population of Brown alumni and alumnae, many of whom attended the university at a time when it was less inclusive and welcoming."

How the university reconciles this argument with last year's Supreme Court decision banning the consideration of race in admissions is unclear. In fact, the ad hoc committee's report notes that the SCOTUS ruling provided a "backdrop" against which to reconsider these admissions policies.

Remaining blind to race and favoring children of minority alums seem to work at cross purposes.

Clarity might come as the university continues to reconsider its legacy policy. The committee's recommendation is to "gain more insights into the complex questions raised by those preferences to inform a path toward a long-term decision."

For now, its policy remains "consistent with peer practices," the report notes.

Fellow Ivy League schools cling tenaciously to legacy preferences even as politicians call for bans, the federal government launches investigations of discrimination, and public and private colleges nationwide abandon the practice, especially as higher education struggles to maintain diversity in a post-affirmative action world.

Paxson alluded to this inherent conflict while defending the committee's recommendations.

"I continue to be proud of Brown's strong track record of national leadership in cultivating diversity and inclusion as core tenets for sustaining academic excellence," she said.

"I am committed to ensuring these values are reflected in the way we build our student body. The decisions we have reached regarding Early Decision and standardized test requirements remain true to these values, and continuing to examine family connections is the right decision for the complicated questions this issue raises for our community."