University of Utah drops ACT, SAT test requirement for two years; Westminster College will do so permanently

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune file photo ) A skateboarder rides through the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City in 2013.

Prospective University of Utah students don’t have to stress over their ACT or SAT scores anymore. The state’s flagship school won’t be requiring them for admission for at least the next two years — a reaction to the pandemic that’s now causing colleges across the nation to rethink their application processes.

And it’s possible that these famed standardized tests might be phased out altogether.

“We don’t want students to have to choose between taking the test or not coming to the U.,” said Steve Robinson, the university’s senior associate vice president for enrollment management, in announcing the decision this week.

The U. will drop the requirement to submit the scores for students who apply and will start classes at the university in 2021 and 2022. That applies to those who will be juniors or seniors in high school this fall.

The coronavirus, in particular, has made signing up to take the ACT or SAT particularly difficult for those classes. Most students take one of the exams at the end of their 11th grade year, giving them time, if they choose, to try to get a higher score before applying to colleges at the beginning of their 12th grade year.

But this spring, some of the scheduled tests were canceled when schools closed with the pandemic. And moving forward, many of the exam dates remaining will be open to fewer students, to maintain social distancing. Some are already booked out through October and November, despite the test providers adding more options.

Another spike in cases could also shut them down again.

“It’s really creating a lot of disruption in the availability of the test,” Robinson said. “And it’s increasing the anxiety of high school students trying to apply to college.”

Some students, too, may not be able to afford to take the exam — at about $50 each, though Utah covers the cost for each junior to take the ACT once — if a parent or family member has lost their job due to the virus.

The U. will be the first major public college in Utah to suspend requiring an ACT or SAT score for admission. Later Friday, Westminster College in Salt Lake City, a private school, confirmed that it, too, will drop the requirement. (Utah State University and Brigham Young University have since announced they would also not requirement the test scores for application.)

“It’s absolutely about serving students,” said Erica Johnson, vice president of enrollment for Westminster.

Only one other school here, Utah Valley University in Orem, doesn’t ask for the test on its application. But it’s an open enrollment institution that has never required exams or a set GPA to be accepted.

It’s becoming a trend at schools across the nation — at least temporarily — in response to the coronavirus. That includes names like Harvard University and Oregon State University (considered a peer institution to the U. in the Pac-12). And the University of California will permanently eliminate the requirement.

The U. plans to use its two-year window as a pilot to determine whether to drop the standardized testing requirement altogether, too, for all of its future incoming classes. Westminster, though, will do so permanently.

The school’s administrators had already been talking about the change prior to COVID-19, Johnson said; now it will start with the class entering college in fall 2021, who will be asked to display strengths “in and out of the classroom” on applications.

The discussion, overall, represents a major shift in higher education.

For years, the test has been held up by institutions as the end-all measurement of student achievement. Many schools have set a bar at the minimum score a student must reach to be accepted. At the U., the preference is generally that you score at least a 22 out of 36 possible points on the ACT, the more popular exam in Utah and the West.

But the tests have also been criticized, and data supports it, for historically being biased against minority students and those from lower income households. They often score lower because of how the exams are written and for lack of resources, such as personal tutors.

Ending the reliance on test scores for admissions would, among other things, potentially improve equity at top-tier schools.

Robinson said that’s part of what the U. will look at over the next two years in making its decision. It will also examine how the new class of students performs. If it does well, the school will ditch the requirement entirely.

“We don’t know if the Utah applicant pool responds in the same way,” he noted, “How will these students do academically? Will the lack of a standardized test score make a difference?”

Already, he added, the U. factors in other considerations when accepting a student beyond their tests scores — GPA, extracurriculars, a personal statement. And it will continue doing so.

There will be some exceptions, too. Students who don’t earn a GPA comparable to other students or those who have a GED or went to a non-accredited high school will still be asked to take the exam so the U. can weigh their credentials. A score will also be required for some programs or for major scholarship applications, including the U.‘s merit-based scholarships, such as the presidential, flagship or trustees awards.

“We are not changing the academic rigor of our admission standards,” Robinson said.

The hope, though, is to “decrease some of the costs and complexities” of applying to the U., especially in the middle of a pandemic.