Admissions Officials Shrug at SAT Writing Test

New survey captures opinions on exam and college affordability.


Corrected on 5/1/08: Due to a typing error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Mr. Palmer Muntz as "she".

In a new survey, college admissions officials share their views of the SAT writing test, college affordability, and student recruiting. The survey, which was sent out to senior-level admissions deans and enrollment managers at public and private institutions in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., asked about admissions criteria, recruitment practices, and affordability, among other things. The responses, which came from 461 officials, included findings that have elicited sharp reactions from high school counselors and admissions officials who reviewed them this week. Researchers at Maguire Associates, an educational consulting firm in Concord, Mass., conducted the survey and analyzed the results for the Chronicle of Higher Education

On the SAT writing test:

Scores on the new writing portion of the SAT exam have no influence on admissions decisions, said 32 percent of the college admissions officials who were surveyed. Those results do not appear to bode well for the College Board, which had sought to appease critics of the high-stakes entrance exam by adding the writing portion in recent years. Colleges that don't require the writing test say they are not convinced that it translates into success in the classroom. Palmer Muntz, vice president of enrollment management at Taylor University in Fort Wayne, Ind., says that up until now the writing test has been "relatively meaningless to us." He's promising to take a fresh look at whether Taylor should be considering it for admissions but says that first he would "like to see studies that aren't done by people with a vested interest in proving the test's validity." The College Board says that recent studies, including one of its own, have shown that the writing test is a good indicator of how well students will perform in college. "The evidence is now clear that it does a very good job—as good or better than other admission measures," says Alana Klein, a spokeswoman for the College Board. Some colleges say the reason the test hasn't caught on is that their staffs are still learning how to use it in admissions decisions. "Many of the folks on college campuses have been using the old format [verbal and math scores only] for so long, it is hard to change, but the change is coming," says Tom Weede, vice president for enrollment at Butler University.

On college affordability:

Despite pressure from richer institutions that have lowered tuition costs for lower- and middle-income students, only 8 percent of the admissions officials surveyed say their colleges have taken similar steps as a result, and an additional10 percent say they are considering such changes. Most say they cannot afford to bring down costs. Sarat Munjuluri, director of college counseling at Sacramento High School in California, who reviewed the response from colleges, worries about the consequences. "I believe that we will further a class-based system of stratification," he says. College administrators say it's difficult for colleges without multibillion-dollar endowments to follow the lead of richer institutions. "I seriously doubt that the limited response to the changes made by these icons of higher education is an absence of will," says Peter Osgood, director of admissions at Harvey Mudd College. He and other administrators say it's too soon to say how many more colleges will revise their financial aid policies since such proposals take a least a year for review. On recruitment:

Blogs from current college students posted on the college's website and online chats have become two of the most popular ways for colleges to recruit applicants, according to the colleges surveyed. "After most prospective students have sorted through the factual information (majors, location, size, etc.) these student-oriented media help with THE key question: Where do I fit best?" says Weede of Butler University. Cheryl Brown, director of undergraduate admissions at SUNY-Binghamton thinks applicants turn to student blogs, which appear on the school's website, because "they want the 'real story,' not marketing-generated canned materials." She says, "Today's students believe blogs, IMs, and other true-to-life contacts to be more believable." But some independent college counselors are skeptical of these new recruitment tools. "These students receive an avalanche of materials from colleges and can't help but think the colleges know who they are and really want them as students," says Janet Rosier, an independent admissions consultant in Woodridge, Conn. "I warn my students not to be taken in by these marketing efforts."