How Are Test Optional Colleges Handling Merit Scholarships?
By Joe Messinger, CFP®
September 11, 2020
The SAT exam was born in 1926 and the ACT in 1959. The ACT and SAT exams were created for the purpose of leveling the playing field in college admissions. Regardless of a student’s background, these “standardized” tests were intended to provide a way to compare students…a sort of apples to apples comparison. In the 1960s, colleges began to make the reporting of test scores optional, and the test optional movement was born.
Test optional schools felt that the tests weren’t doing what they were supposed to do. Underrepresented students who had less access to test preparation were still being left out. We can argue about whether these tests leveled the playing field or not, but it is a fact that these tests have been used not only for admissions decisions but also for the award of merit scholarships. Test scores are among the three most used admissions criteria. (The other two being GPA and course rigor.)
National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest) was created in 1985 as a way to promote test optional policies and keeps a list of current test optional colleges. This year with COVID-19 the list has swelled to 1,500+ members. The college admission folks realize that students have been unable to sit for exams. They simply have no score to provide. Or they have an older score that they were unable to retest to improve. Colleges need applicants so a tidal wave of colleges are waiving required test scores for application this fall.
Does that mean applicants aren’t sending in test scores?
No, it does not, and that is important to remember. From an admissions standpoint, many (and even maybe most) students will still be sending in test scores. Students must decide if the inclusion of a test score improves their total application. How does the test score compare to the average scores of accepted students at that college? When test scores are not present, the rest of the application materials takes on more importance.
The relationship between test scores and merit scholarships
Up until this current time we are living in, the vast majority of test optional colleges still required a score in order to award merit scholarship money. Those scores, usually together with the GPA, were the determining factor in whether a student received merit aid and how much that aid might be.
Now, students simply have no score to provide. Like we mentioned before, colleges still need applicants, and they really need enrolled students with the financial stress they are under. They need to be an attractive choice, and in plain fairness, it is not the student’s fault they can’t sit for an exam. Some students have registered over and over again just to see their exam cancelled every time.
Merit scholarships without a test score
Not every college is awarding merit aid without an ACT or SAT test score, but many are…more than at any time before. Penn State announced that scholarships awarded on the basis of academic performance will no longer factor test scores as part of the consideration. Miami University of Ohio’s merit scholarship grid has been adjusted for Fall 2021, and no longer includes test scores. Examples of other colleges awarding merit aid without test scores include University of Maryland and Indiana University.
Class of 2021 should compare their situation to successful candidates at each college to decide if they are a good fit. If students have a great test score, include it. It will strengthen your application and can still be a strong factor in determining the level of the merit scholarship award. Test optional does not mean test blind. If you indicate you are including your test score, the college will include it in your application materials. Students have to decide if it works in their favor. If a student needs merit aid to afford a college, they need to review the college’s website to see if the scholarship process has changed.