Did the Pandemic Increase Inequality in Higher Education?

Schools not requiring standardized test scores has had ripple effects

Harvard Square
Harvard Square, seen from the air.
Henry Dixon/Unsplash

Last year, you may recall, Harvard University told prospective students that they wouldn’t need to submit standardized test scores with their applications. They weren’t the only ones. A host of prominent colleges and universities made similar decisions, addressing the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic as well as the notion that standardized tests may be biased.

That decision may have had consequential — and unexpected — effects, according to a new article by Amelia Nierenberg in The New York Times. The most noticeable effect isn’t all that surprising: many schools that waived their standardized test requirements are seeing a surge in applicants. Applications to Harvard are up by 42%; applications to Colgate are up 103%. The same is true — though not as dramatically — for the likes of Penn State and UCLA.

Schools that aren’t as high-profile, however, are seeing the reverse: a dearth of applicants. Nierenberg writes that the SUNY system has seen applications decline by 14%, while Portland State University has seen its number of applications drop by 12%. Institutions already dealing with a drop in revenue due to the pandemic may be left with no choice but to cut classes or entire departments, thus making them seem less enticing to potential students. It’s pretty much the definition of a vicious circle.

While these contrasts can be shocking, they aren’t emerging out of nowhere. The Times spoke with former Middlebury College provost Dr. Susan Campbell Baldridge, who noted that “the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting more and more challenged, in terms of institutions.” For institutions already struggling, this new wrinkle offers still more challenges.

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