University of Texas at Austin Reinstates SAT/ACT Requirement

Another domino falls in the direction of testing requirements. This time, it's a public flagship.
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Published on March 13, 2024
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  • The University of Texas at Austin will require applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores beginning next fall.
  • The university went test-optional in 2020 because of the pandemic.
  • Students guaranteed admission through the state's top 10% plan will still be required to submit scores.
  • Test scores will help the university sort applicants according to major preferences.

Adding to the growing list of top schools reinstating standardized test requirements, the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) will require students to submit SAT or ACT scores beginning next fall.

The Texas decision follows similar announcements from several Ivy League schools, including Dartmouth College, Yale University, and Brown University.

Like hundreds of other colleges, UT Austin went test-optional in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, students have had the option to submit their scores and have them considered within a holistic admissions review.

That's what 42% of the 73,000 applicants to UT Austin did last year, according to the university's statement. Those who opted in had a median score of 1420 on the SAT.

They performed better academically than non-submitters, earning an average GPA 0.86 points higher during their first college semester. And the university's historical data demonstrates that high-scoring students are more likely to graduate.

Our goals are to attract the best and brightest students and to make sure every student is successful once they are here, President Jay Hartzell said in the statement.

Standardized scores combined with high school GPA support this goal by improving early identification of students who demonstrated the greatest academic achievement, the most potential, and those who can most benefit from support through our student success programs.

This rationale differs somewhat from what the Ivies argued.

While Dartmouth, Yale, and Brown similarly acknowledged that higher standardized test scores positively correlate with higher college GPAs, those institutions were equally concerned with how test scores can level the diversity playing field.

Many historically excluded students, they found, weren't submitting test scores during the test-optional years because their scores fell below the median.

Yet taken in the context of holistic admissions, relatively high scores, even those below the median, may signal strong academic potential among underrepresented minority, low-income, and first-generation students.

In that sense, requiring standardized tests can actually bolster diversity, not hinder it, as some might argue.

Test Requirements Under Texas' 'Top 10%' Plan

Complicating matters somewhat is the state's top 10% plan, which guarantees high-achieving students admission to its public colleges and universities.

Texas instituted this plan in 1997 following a Circuit Court of Appeals ban on affirmative action in the state. In theory, guaranteeing admission to students across all public schools would enable high-achieving students from under-resourced communities to gain access to higher education in a state now blind to racial preferences.

At UT Austin, the state's flagship institution, only the top 6% are guaranteed admission. The university must fill 75% of the spots reserved for Texas residents with students qualifying under the 6% rule.

During the university's test-optional phase, students applying through this program weren't required to submit test scores. Now that the university has reinstituted mandatory testing, will these top students be required to submit scores even though they're guaranteed admission?

Yes, Ross Burkhard, a media relations coordinator at UT Austin, told BestColleges in an email.

Students granted automatic admission will receive acceptance independent of their standardized test scores, he wrote.

So what purposes will the scores serve? Beyond helping to track the relationship between test results and academic performance, scores will determine the majors for which students qualify.

In their applications, UT Austin students rank the top three academic programs they wish to pursue. Their test scores enable the university to place students in majors where they're most likely to succeed, sifting out students vying for the more popular and rigorous fields such as business and engineering, Hartzell told The New York Times.

Our experience during the test-optional period reinforced that standardized testing is a valuable tool for deciding who is admitted and making sure those students are placed in majors that are the best fit, Hartzell said in the university's statement.

Test scores provide the university an extra measure by which to gauge students' academic ability and potential, especially within an applicant pool featuring thousands of students with 4.0 grade point averages, Miguel Wasielewski, the university's vice provost of admissions, told the Times.

There's just not a lot of variation there, he said.

Testing and Race-Neutral Admissions

So the UT Austin decision constitutes one more vote in favor of standardized testing, following in the footsteps of the aforementioned Ivies, along with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Georgetown University.

Meanwhile, Harvard remains test-optional, at least until the class of 2031 applies, as does Princeton until at least 2026.

The University of Pennsylvania just announced it will remain test optional for another year.

And last year, Columbia University announced it would remain test-optional permanently.

Will UT Austin's decision influence other public flagships to reinstitute testing? Despite some notable exceptions, recent evidence suggests there's a growing movement across highly competitive universities to do so.

As such, we shouldn't be surprised when more colleges and universities, both public and private, reinstate testing requirements over the next year or two.

Suggesting as much only a few months ago would have seemed counterintuitive. For those who believe standardized testing hinders diversity efforts, the pandemic-induced testing waivers only proved their point, as test-optional institutions realized more diverse applicant pools and entering classes.

During this testing moratorium, the U.S. Supreme Court further altered the landscape by deeming race-conscious admissions unconstitutional, thereby placing a premium on removing barriers to promoting diversity — including, one might presume, standardized tests.

Yet here we are, not yet a year removed from the SCOTUS decision, and selective institutions most affected by it are re-erecting those barriers by returning to a testing environment. Or so one might think.

That's why Yale, Dartmouth, and Brown were so careful to argue otherwise, touting tests as a way to enhance diversity, not hinder it.

The University of Texas didn't offer that rationale, though its top 6% policy already exists to counter the effects of race-neutral admissions. It renders the university something of an outlier, which makes it difficult to predict how other flagships will respond.