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Colleges drop SAT, but still buy names of high-scoring students

By Janet Lorin
Bloomberg News / July 20, 2011

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NEW YORK - Colleges from Bowdoin in Maine to Pitzer in California dropped the SAT entrance exam as a requirement, saying it favors the affluent, penalizes minorities, and doesn’t predict academic success. What they don’t advertise is that they find future students by buying names of those who do well on the test.

Pitzer buys as many as 100,000 names a year based on test scores from the College Board, owner of the SAT, to search for applicants, even after the school became “test-optional’’ in the 2003-2004 year. Wake Forest University, which stopped requiring the SAT or rival ACT test for students entering in 2009, also buys names, as does Bowdoin.

Students are being duped by some schools into thinking that test scores don’t matter, when they matter a great deal for marketing outreach and prestige, said Leon Botstein, president of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., which neither requires the tests nor buys names. Test-optional colleges that buy names of high-scoring students are hypocritical, he said.

“They take a stance that looks principled but is strategic,’’ Botstein said in an interview.

The College Board and ACT Inc., both nonprofit, sell names for 33 cents apiece.

In 1969, Bowdoin became the first school to become test optional, according to FairTest, a nonprofit advocacy group in Boston. Since then, dozens of schools have followed suit, as more colleges questioned possible biases in the tests.

That hasn’t stopped universities from using the test in other ways. Smith College, the all-women’s school in Northampton, Mass., paid the College Board about $20,000 in the past academic year for names of students with “above-average’’ scores, according to Audrey Smith, the dean of enrollment.

“This is one of the very few ways to directly get at young women who we know are going to college next year,’’ Smith said. “This is a good way to introduce ourselves.’’

Almost all schools that used the College Board’s Student Search Service - with a database of some 6.5 million student names - before going test optional continue to use it to recruit applicants, said Kathleen Steinberg, a spokeswoman for the College Board.

Another benefit to test-optional colleges of recruiting students with high test results is that it can help raise their average entrance-exam scores, a metric used in determining some national rankings and a measure of prestige.

In 2002, Pitzer ranked 70th in the US News & World Report list of liberal arts colleges. That year, the school’s average SAT score for verbal and math combined was 1,234, according to Pitzer data. By 2010, it ranked 46th, while the score reached 1,293.

“It helped certainly to improve our rankings,’’ Pitzer president Laura Trombley said. “That’s going to have a positive effect if our SAT scores improved.’’

The school doesn’t have the name recognition of some schools and needs to seek out qualified students, said Trombley, who sees no contradiction in buying the names.

“We wanted to welcome more students and not eliminate a pool of students,’’ she said.

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