Merit Scholarships Shouldn’t Be Based on SAT or ACT: Report

A new report from the National Center for Fair & Open Testing says that most merit scholarships don't require standardized test scores, but those that do create barriers for students.
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Published on July 7, 2023
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  • The vast majority of merit scholarships do not require ACT or SAT scores, according to a new report by the National Center for Fair & Open Testing.
  • Those scholarships that do require standardized test scores create barriers for historically underserved students, according to the report.
  • Basing merit scholarships on factors other than test scores could lead to better diversity and accessibility at colleges, the report says.
  • A slew of colleges and universities moved away from ACT and SAT requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic, and many plan to retain those test-optional policies.

Requiring ACT or SAT scores for merit scholarships creates barriers for historically underserved students who need that aid the most, a new report says.

The vast majority of merit-based scholarships don't require standardized test scores, according to a new report from the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest). Only a quarter of scholarships surveyed in the report required the test scores, reflecting a nationwide move away from requiring ACT and SAT scores both in scholarships and college admissions.

Less than a one-fifth of state-funded merit scholarship programs, and a third of institution-funded merit scholarships at state flagship universities, require standardized test scores, according to the “Merit” Awards: Myths, Realities, & Barriers to Access report.

Despite that low number of scholarship requirements, there is a widespread misconception that most scholarships require a minimum ACT or SAT score to qualify, according to the report.

But those merit scholarships that still require ACT and SAT scores make it harder for students to access that critical funding, FairTest Executive Director Harry Feder said in a press release.

Ongoing merit scholarship requirements still pose a barrier to college affordability for those who need aid the most, Feder said. Especially for teenagers from low-income families and under-represented groups, scholarships that require test scores — given the striking correlation of standardized test results to family income and racial background — deter students from applying and attending.

“Lottery and sales tax funded ‘merit’ scholarships based on ACT and SAT scores use poor people's money to subsidize rich people's tuition. Test-based ‘merit’ scholarships are yet another roadblock in the quest for broader affordable access to college education.

Basing scholarships on factors other than standardized tests could positively affect diversity in higher education, the report reads.

FairTest Senior Director of Advocacy and Advancement Akil Bello, the report's primary author, pushed back on claims that large portions of merit scholarship aid go to underserved groups.

Inaccurate perceptions about the testing requirements of ‘merit’ aid have been encouraged by the manufacturers of the ACT and SAT, the National Merit Scholarship program, several prominent statewide test-based plans including Florida's Bright Futures and Georgia's Zell Miller scholarships, and the test prep industry, Bello said in the release.

As a result, students frequently misallocate time and effort toward test preparation to improve their chances of receiving merit scholarships. The claim that a sizable portion of ‘merit’ aid goes to diamonds in the rough from historically under-represented groups is inconsistent with one hundred years of research about the tests' racial, gender and social class biases.

ACT and SAT requirements have become increasingly sparse since many colleges ditched them during the COVID-19 pandemic. Advocates for test-optional admissions have noted those policies' positive effect on diversity and accessibility.

Those tests have since attempted to draw in more students and schools by experimenting with virtual offerings: The College Board last year announced a digital overhaul of the SAT, cutting back the test's time from three to two hours and moving to the digital format by 2024. The ACT plans to launch an online testing pilot program later this year.

Many colleges plan to continue their test-optional admission policies in perpetuity, including the University of California system, which made its no testing requirement policy permanent in 2021. Some schools, including Purdue University, have since moved to require the SAT and ACT again.