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Baylor Pays Students to Retake the SAT–Proving That Rankings Drive Policy

Just a couple of weeks ago, the National Council for College Admissions Counseling issued a report calling on colleges to reduce the importance of standardized scores in the admissions process.

But as long as public rankings of colleges and universities, such as those issue by US News & World Report, it’s unlikely that colleges will dump their dependence on scores any time soon.

Baylor University is now paying its accepted students to retake the SAT.  The stated aim is to encourage students to improve their scores and thereby be eligible for more scholarship aid.  But the ploy also helps move Baylor’s average SAT score up a notch or two.  And in the world of rankings, a notch or two is significant.

Here’s how it works at Baylor.  Admissions and financial aid folks at Baylor contact accepted students telling them that if they retake the SAT, they will receive a $300 credit the campus bookstore. If students raised their scores by 50 points, they would receive a $1000 scholarship.  Moreover, students who raised their scores above predetermined cut-off points for certain merit scholarships, they would then be eligible or thousands more dollars in scholarships.

The plan worked.  Over 800 students retook the SAT, about 150 received the $1000 scholarship for raising scores by 50 points or more, and 177 boosted their scores over the merit hump and pulled down another $450,000 in scholarships.  And (surprise!) Baylor’s average SAT score went up by 10 points.

You see, when it comes to the use of SAT and ACT scores in the admissions process, we have something of a vicious circle.  Even though virtually everyone agrees that there is no adequate proof that these scores predict college success or measure intelligence or aptitude, we can’t seem to get rid of them.  Why not?

Colleges, especially selective ones, find the short-hand numbers provided by the score a convenient sorting tool.

Reading applications more carefully and devising more personal or holistic admissions procedures takes time–and probably will cost more–if more staff people are required  to actually read every single application more carefully.

While everyone moans about the rankings, every rankings organization uses the scores as one important measure of a college’s selectivity and quality.

Colleges in the middle or bottom of rankings heap tend to be the ones most willing to abandon the scores as an admissions tool.  What is the incentive for Harvard, Yale, or Princeton to stop using the test scores in admissions?  (Besides, with their huge volumes of applications, these are the schools that depend on scores more heavily in assigning each application a number (the “academic index,” based on test scores and class rank).  Still, even schools like Baylor with very average SAT scores, aspire to be considered premier academic institutions.  And this aspiration depends, in part, on becoming more selective–a measure that depends, in large part, on average test scores of admitted students.

So this the problem:  no matter how much we all detest the SAT and ACT scores, it’s devilishly hard to get rid of them.

Rankings organizations will not drop their use of the test scores, because what other “objective” measure of quality could replace them?  At least scores are something easily compared across institutions.  It’s much harder to actually compare more important variables, such as quality of teaching, student learning outcomes, or “return on investment.”

It’s hard to know whether Baylor’s cynical ploy to raise its average SAT scores will become a wave of the future.  Most everyone in the business seems shocked and appalled by their practice of buying better SAT scores.

But it’s not difficult to understand the incentives, and to understand why the admissions and financial aid offices acted the way they did.  To become a highly-ranked, world class university, those average test scores had better be as high as they can be.  In the rankings game, nothing else matters as much as the numbers.

My guess is that while other admissions directors are busy condemning Baylor’s decision, they’re also secretly trying to figure out how to achieve the goal without incurring the wrath of their peers.  I think they probably admire Baylor’s chutzpah more than they would like to admit.

Mark Montgomery

College Counselor

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