850+ Test Optional Colleges: A Closer Look at the Famous List

As a 20 year veteran of test preparation, I’ve been enamored with the FairTest list of SAT/ACT optional schools for what seems like a decade now. I am sure many of you as parents, educators and students have also been impressed with such a list; it’s seemingly a harbinger of a radical shift in admission policy that will minimize the impact of standardized tests which have historically put low income and minority students at a disadvantage. I’ve seen the good and bad of testing for years and find it commendable that a school would be brave enough to defy convention when it comes to standardized test scores, forgoing both the benefits and the drawbacks, to weigh students on their broader merits.

Historically the FairTest  list hasn’t provided much of a benefit to students since a large number of the schools on the list don’t have the national recognition many students and parents have their hearts set on.  This changed in the last few years as New York University, Wake Forest University and a few other nationally ranked and highly selective universities joined the “test optional” band wagon, publicly declaring their intention to minimize the role of test scores in the admissions process.  It seemed that suddenly top schools were throwing themselves in the mix, dazzling students and parents with the prospect of a test-free application.

These announcements have renewed interest in the FairTest list by both college access professionals and the media, who touted its “850+,. 4 year SAT/ACT optional universities” repeatedly, like this CBS MoneyWatch 25 Tips for Choosing a College or the Clark University press release that stated quoted the number of test optional schools at “almost 900”.

This piqued my curiosity about the FairTest list and its accuracy.  Can there really be that many 4-year colleges who don’t care about standardized test scores? As test prep teacher and tutor, I often have students who have difficulties getting their SAT/ACT to levels that would give them a fair chance at admission, and knowing that there so many schools with an optional submission of a test score provides comfort and confidence to struggling test takers.  But when I really examined the list, I noticed a couple of things that struck me as odd – there were a lot of for-profit universities listed, and in some cases, multiple campuses of the same institution were counted separately.  I wondered aloud to my office – how real was this list?  And down the data rabbit hole we went….

I assigned one of our summer interns the job of categorizing all the universities on the list so we could separate what was an actual 4-year university, and what was a different type of school.  Initially the assignment was to simply label each school as “for-profit” or “secondary campus,” however as we began to review more schools it became clear that those two categories were insufficient for the task of categorizing this entire list.  My crack team of awesome – including myself, our college intern, and a former Jeopardy contestant with a Master’s in Information Science, ultimately decided on eight categories of schools:


1.      Traditional Colleges – these schools have multiple bachelor’s degrees offered and cater to students graduating from high school – for example Wake Forest University or University of Alaska, Anchorage. We counted the 33 HBCUs and 8 single sex schools on this list as traditional colleges.

2.      For-profit Schools – schools that are identified as for profit by College Board or the schools’ own website. If you’ve not seen the bad press about these schools check out articles from the NY Times, Frontline, and The Village Voice, as well as on this blog.

3.      Specialty Schools – These schools include culinary institutes, bible colleges, seminaries, and vocational/job training/continuing education programs which are designed for adults.  Examples included Rabbinical College Beth Shraga and Baker College of Cadillac.

4.      Community Colleges – Given that this list is titled 4-year colleges, we were surprised to find such a large number of 2 year programs and community colleges.  Examples included Remington College and Northern New Mexico College.

5.      University Programs – Several “universities” on the list were not actual universities, but programs within a larger university. While this might be a fair listing since they could have had their own admissions criteria, it seemed misleading to put them on a list of 4-year universities. Examples include College for Lifelong Learning and Friends World Program of Long Island University.

6.      Online Universities – While the presence of online programs are increasing, these programs have not yet gained the prestige of traditional bricks and mortar universities, and as such it made more sense to categorize them as their own entity.  Examples from the list include Excelsior College of the State University of NY and Charter Oak State College.

7.      International Universities – Several schools on the list serve an international population, having websites that were exclusively in languages other than English.  Examples included Teikyo University and Turabo University.

8.      Closed/Did Not Exist – Several schools on the list were closed, were not accepting applications, or we simply could not find evidence of their existence.I suppose that it’s technically true if a school doesn’t exist it doesn’t technically require test scores for admission because there is no admission, but leaving these schools on this list does nothing but misinform.  Examples include: Sheldon Jackson University (closed in 2007) and White Pines College (which changed its name to Chester College in 2002, and then closed its doors in 2012).

What we ultimately concluded is that this list is not really a tool for students to use to find accurate information on colleges to apply to.  As it stands, this list will likely confuse and annoy and possibly mislead students (assuming most students don’t have the research skills and discernment of grown people) more than clarify.   It seems that while FairTest adds new schools to the list, the database it draws from requires a great deal of manual verification that a non-profit organization like FairTest doesn’t really have the resources to do. Thus the list, which needs to be checked and rechecked, is not updated with newer information (though slightly before this post I had a nice convo with Bob Schaeffer of FairTest who told me they were about to update the list). All in all we need to be aware that this is a list that primarily mines college databases for one factor: whether a “school” requires SAT/ACT. Thus the list will include schools that have “open admission” policies and accept anyone who has graduated from high school.  With that being said there are lots of improvements that could be made to the list to make it more user friendly (and actually useful to students) primary among them is eliminating the confusing and inconsistent footnoting system. As my tag team partner, Aimee, put it “9 footnotes is about 9 too many,” and the assigning of these footnotes can only be described as arbitrary.

So what’s the upshot here? What’s the moral of the story?

While this project wasn’t intended to embarrass any organization, the more we dug into the data the more it became clear that the list was poorly compiled and has not been comprehensively evaluated in many many years.  It’s also a prime example of how automated datamining practices result in a laundry list of misinformation which can then take on a life of its own.  To provide accurate information, additional work by a human is necessary to properly classify niche schools like Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science as a specialty school, to weed out 2-year programs (or not call the list a list of FOUR YEAR colleges), and to be mindful of for-profits, international schools and schools that actually no longer exist.  This list might generate buzz for media outlets to quote (and quite a few did), but if you are trying to find a traditional college that does not require some form of standardize testing for admission, you’re probably looking for a needle in a haystack. It’s also worth noting that some of the schools that are test-score optional for admissions decisions (we found nearly 500 on this list) may require test score submission in order to consider an applicant for scholarships.  Not submitting a score may place the student out of consideration for funds, so I’m not sure how optional that really is in today’s economic climate.

Your best bet, always, is to contact a school directly to find out what its requirements are and a phone call may be more useful than a website visit. Oh heavens! The websites… that’s a whole other blog post waiting to happen but I’ll leave you with this one image. You figure out whether the SAT is required.

If anyone wants the research that this blog was based on please submit your request to me via email and I’d be happy to share. My email is Akil at Bell Curves dot com (with no spaces, and the right symbols, of course).

Update: While we were doing our vetting of the list FairTest conducted their own internal review of the list and revised it. They have removed many some, if not all, of the closed schools, reduced the impact of schools with multiple locations by listing them as having “multiple sites”, reduced the number of footnotes to 7, as well as a few other changes. All of these changes add positive value to the list and help clarify the true number of 4 year ACT/SAT optional schools, however until the schools that are not considered by the general public (rabbinical schools, etc) are removed and for-profits are addressed I think the list will still have many questions and not truly capture the utility that it should. 

  • Bobschaeffer

    You should have double-checked our list before putting up your post. 
    The overhaul of the list at fairtest.org/university/optional that was underway when you spoke with us is now nearly
    done.  Multiple listings of (largely for-profit) schools like ITT Tech
    have been consolidated (though the College Board Handbook still lists
    each one individually), colleges that have closed — including the two
    you cited — were removed a weeks ago, and the footnote count has
    been cut to seven, with further reductions possible.  In addition,we
    just double-checked and found that both Remington College and Northern
    New Mexico College do offer bachelor’s degrees.

    We expect that you will note these corrections on your blog.

    Bob Schaeffer, Public Education Director
    FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing

    P.S.  FairTest does agree with your final point — it is often impossible to
    figure out a school’s actual admissions testing requirements from the
    information posted (or not, in many cases) on its we

  • BellCurves

    Thanks for the comment Bob. I’ve added a footnote 🙂 to my post. Let me know when you rename the list so I can take down the post.

  • Akil Bello

    Thanks for the comment Bob. I’ve added a footnote 🙂 to my post. Let me know when you rename the list so I can take down the post.

  • http://www.perfectscoreproject.com Debbie Stier

    My impression, after looking into the “test optional” school issue was that they were (for the most part) schools that were gaming the system to increase their rankings such as US News.  Test Optional *can* mean (because it’s not standardized) that they have more applicants (and are thus able to reject more applicants and seem “more competitive” by the rules of the rankings).  Also, most only report the scores of those who submit their them (i.e. those with higher scores), so the “average SAT score” is artificially inflated.

    Not all schools did this, but the majority queried did.Also, as you say in the post, oftentimes (most times?) “test optional” schools require a student submit SAT scores for merit aid — so ultimately, you’ve got to be in the game unless you are willing and able to forfeit that opportunity.There was a 2008 or 2009 NACAC report that detailed all of this and other “misuses” of SAT scores — one of which I found interesting was “bond rating” by SAT score (I think that’s what they call it).  The school gets a value by their SAT scores.I was not clear whether all of this applies to ACT scores too, but I don’t believe so.

  • http://www.perfectscoreproject.com Debbie Stier

    p.s. i’ve gone fully back to le papier.  Has “fear of internet distraction” made it into the DSMV?

  • Jenn Cohen

    OOOOO…I LOVE a research project 🙂  I’ve always thought the list was a red herring for the reasons Debbie already pointed out, but it didn’t occur to me that the schools on it weren’t traditional 4-year colleges.  It’s pretty disingenuous to include vocational schools and for-profits…are there ANY culinary schools out there that require SAT scores?  While Fair Test has accomplished a lot of good things in the past re: ferreting out discrimination, what of significance has it done lately?  If it can’t keep up what is likely its most visited page updated, why does it exist?

  • BellCurves

    To be fair to FairTest, while I was doing this analysis they updated their list and removed many of the worst offending schools.

  • Bobschaeffer

    FairTest uses the same standard for inclusion on our list as does the College Board Handbook and the federal government’s IPEDS database — accredited, bachelor-degree granting institutions. The only difference is that the College Board Handbook lists schools like DeVry multiple times with each individual “campus” getting a separate listing while the revised FairTest list consolidates them all in one listing with the designation “Multiple Sites.” The claim that schools adopt test-optional policies to boost their rankings is a canard: it has been publicly refuted by the director of the U.S. News rankings project, Robert Morse, who has looked at the evidence.

    Check out the updated test-optional list at: http://www.fairtest.org/university/optional. It has hosted more than 2,500 unique visitors today alone!

    Bob Schaeffer, Public Education Director
    FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing

  • Jenn Cohen

    That’s good news, but I’m still unclear what Fair Test’s purpose is these days.  Sure, their press releases make it into the media because it’s popular to criticize standardized tests. But, are they saying or doing anything new?  Yes, there are racial/socioeconomic achievement gaps in the test results every year, but there’s been zero research evidence that the current version of the SAT is inherently discriminatory (and the evidence for the previous SAT format was slim).  Are there problems with access to quality education and quality test prep?  Absolutely.  But that’s not the fault of the test itself. 

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