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New test-optional admissions policy aims to diversify student body

(Hart Rosenberg) After finding research that says low income and minority students are less able to provide standardized test scores, Mills stopped requiring them on applications.
(Hart Rosenberg)
After finding research that says low income and minority students are less able to provide standardized test scores, Mills stopped requiring them on applications.

Last month, Mills joined more than 800 other colleges and universities who have de-emphasized standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT in their admission decisions.

In a statement released on Jan. 20, Mills identified a 2014 national study as critical in its decision to no longer require standardized test scores of its applicants. The study found that test-optional colleges and universities were more likely to attract students of color, low-income students and first generation students.

Most institutions that choose not to require the SAT or ACT are small, liberal arts colleges, but larger public universities such as Arizona State and Temple University have recently deemed standardized test scores secondary or irrelevant in their evaluation of a student’s preparedness for college, according to

Robynne Royster, director of undergraduate admissions, says that Mills has always been committed to reviewing applicants holistically, but that before the adoption of the College’s new test-optional policy, standardized test scores were given “quite a bit” of consideration by admissions officers.

“Looking at grades, test scores, recommendations, essays, all of those things were quite significant in the review process. We are still holistic; we are still looking at all of those pieces, [just with] the removal of the test scores,” Royster said.

When a test-optional policy was first proposed, the College considered the results of similar policies at other top tier liberal arts colleges, as well as a study by the National Organization for College Admission Counseling that corroborated results of the 2014 study “Defining Promise: Optional Standardized Testing Policies in American College and University Admissions.” She says that the new policy not only makes college more accessible to students from marginalized groups, but that it helps cultivate an admissions staff aware of applicants’ diverse backgrounds and the challenges those students may face in higher education.

“[The new policy] has allowed the counselors here to change their role from gatekeepers in the traditional sense to advocates, to understanding the context that the student is learning in, their abilities,” Royster said. “That’s been our charge and focus in this, and that has been echoed by our colleagues who have gone forward with this ahead of us.”

First generation students, in particular, are often disadvantaged by the competitive SAT and ACT preparation process, which favors students who have access to costly tutors, preparation classes and proper advising.

Vanessa Salomon, a junior who identifies as a first generation student and has worked as an SAT tutor, feels that standardized tests can discourage some first generation students who may receive low scores due to their lack of access to preparation materials. These students may feel that their college prospects are limited due to their standardized test scores, or may be deterred from applying to college at all.

“I don’t think the SAT correlates perfectly with how you would achieve in college,” Salomon said. “I think a more realistic indicator would be something like GPA, which shows long-term work ethic. Ultimately, in college, what determines if you do well is your focus, your drive.”

Salomon went on to explain that test-optional policies could be pivotal in attracting first generation and low-income applicants to both Mills and private liberal arts colleges in general.

Associate Provost Chinyere Oparah expressed a similar sentiment regarding the recruitment of Black students to the College. She says she acted as a “bridge between admissions and the faculty” during the drafting and implementation of the new policy.

“I believe that going test optional lifts a barrier for [students of color, first generation and low income] students and sends a message that Mills is a school that is committed to social justice and educational access,” Oparah said in an email.

Dr. Oparah was a prominent voice in the Black Students’ Collective protests two years ago. In response to a racist Facebook posting, the BSC compiled a list of demands, calling on the administration to create a task force charged with “investigating impediments to recruitment, retention, and matriculation of Black students.”

To achieve this end, the College has recently partnered with the mayor of Oakland, Libby Schaaf, and the East Bay College Fund as part of the Oakland Promise initiative, which aims to recruit students from the Oakland Unified School District to local colleges. Though she believes that there is more work to be done, Dr. Oparah is optimistic about the future of Mills’ longstanding commitment to student diversity and equitable access to education.

“I think we need to celebrate our successes as well as acknowledging the work ahead of us. When I came to Mills nearly two decades ago, students of color were a much less visible presence on campus and those of us working alongside and advocating for students of color were really marginalized,” Oparah said. “Today over half our undergrad students are students of color and the work to recruit and retain students of color is recognized as central to our mission as a women’s college committed to overcoming educational barriers.”

Yerme Jones-Hawk contributed reporting on this article.