UChicago’s Ill-Conceived Plan to Drop Standardized Testing Requirements

The university should aim to cultivate academic excellence. Instead, it’s succumbing to ideological monomania.

This week, the University of Chicago announced that it will no longer require applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores. The university’s admissions website explains that its new policy plan is designed to “empower historically underrepresented communities” and to allow students “to decide what information best represents their skills and college readiness.”

It is a fascinating reversal of historical motivations. The SAT, developed in the 1920s based on IQ tests used by the military, was adopted by Harvard president James Conant in order to find smart students from outside the college’s traditional New England orbit. That is, colleges introduced it as an objective test of intelligence and learning that would allow “historically underrepresented communities” — blacks, Jews, Catholics — to break into the old WASP circle. It was a democratic innovation and a recognition of college as a primarily intellectual environment, not a social one.

We shall examine the merits of this strategy in a moment. First let us look at UChicago’s scheme, which will further no sound goal but merely accelerate the demise of higher education.

The university is concerned that some valuable students are not applying because they fear their test scores are not good enough. James Nondorf, the dean of admissions, explained to the Wall Street Journal that “some students are good testers, some students are not,” and therefore he wanted to eliminate any admissions standard “that advantages one group of students over the other.”

What he means, of course, is that he wants to eliminate any standard that unfairly “advantages” one group of students over the other, the planted axiom being that a good tester has an unfair advantage. I concede that there are very smart students who nonetheless do not fare well on standardized tests and whose capacities are better evinced by their GPAs. The fact that colleges require both standardized tests and transcripts, however, should solve this difficulty. Someone who does well neither in school nor on standardized tests might yet be brilliant, but not in a way appropriate for the academy.

Next there is the concern that SAT and ACT scores can be manipulated by tutoring, which is expensive, thus leading to an unfair advantage for the rich. But Harvard professor Steven Pinker cites ample evidence that this is not true, arguing that the correlation between wealth and SAT score is largely the result of inherited ability.

Dean Nondorf has decided that UChicago mustn’t rely on the SAT in choosing students because he finds desirable other characteristics than those it reveals. The problem is that these other characteristics are irrelevant to the mission of the top-tier research university, which is to give the smartest students it can get the best education it can provide. “First-generation college students, underrepresented students of color” — racial minorities, not chromatologists — “military veterans, and students from rural high schools” should in the democratic model be admitted to UChicago only if they meet its intellectual standards. Indeed, colleges adopted the SAT so that these students would not simply be excluded categorically but given a chance to prove their caliber.

Dean Nondorf, however, is adulterating UChicago by using it for socioeconomic choreography rather than for education. That is the heart of the free-college insanity: People who have a degree earn more money than people who don’t, so everyone needs to have one. Thus institutions founded to cultivate academic excellence become home to radical egalitarians, who have succeeded only in making undergraduates dumber.

The mission of the top-tier research university is to give the smartest students it can get the best education it can provide.

When unqualified students are admitted to elite universities, they frequently can’t keep up with the rest of the students. But the school doesn’t want to fail them, so we get falling academic standards and grade inflation. Professor Harvey C. Mansfield, though not possessed of much data, has documented this phenomenon throughout his six decades at Harvard. Before long, the reputation a school won decades ago persists even though the students are nowhere near the same quality. The practice undermines the legitimate accomplishments of qualified black and Hispanic students, who are constantly suspected by employers of having been admitted for demographic quotas rather than for their intelligence and hard work.

That’s what goes on at the top colleges. Meanwhile, the lower-tier schools are chock full of people who have no business being there. If UChicago should provide liberal learning, these other schools should be for acquiring skills necessary for certain careers: engineering, accounting, nursing, computer science. That many jobs could be done well by a competent high-school graduate yet demand a college degree is positively maddening, the result of the federal-funding programs that have created demand for an inherently unnecessary product.

The Bernie Sanders crowd has it backward; they demand that more people go to college when what we need is fewer people in college and better calibration to those who ought to be there. Billionaires such as Peter Thiel, sensing the massive waste of practical talent, have tried to pay young entrepreneurs not to go to college, but what is ultimately necessary is the curtailment of government funding for higher education such that the market for skills is allowed to reach equilibrium and liberal education can be restored.

Of course, this will not happen so long as the egalitarians are more concerned with their ideological monomania than with the actual welfare of the citizenry. The SAT allows the top students from any background to prove themselves worthy of admission to the elite universities. (Engineering schools could together develop their own standardized test, the nursing schools their own standardized test, and so on.) UChicago’s decision merely perpetuates the destructive lie that intellectual ability should not, in the democratic educational model, be the deciding factor in who attends the top colleges.

The salient question is whether the democratic educational model — the so-called “meritocracy” — is in fact the proper model for the best universities. The answer is a qualified Yes. Harvard is not wrong when it says it should want to train the future leaders of the world, not merely the future academics. Producing gentlemen and statesmen was the task of Oxford and Cambridge for hundreds of years. This is sometimes liable to become a “finishing school” model of college where Franklin Roosevelt loafs around and gets gentleman’s C’s. However, it seems quite possible to combine a rigorous education with refinement, taste, virtue, and noblesse oblige. That, and not class reconstitution, should be UChicago’s double bottom line.


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