Saturday, June 13, 2009

Dropping the SAT Requirement at Loyola College

The announcement by the school where I teach, Loyola College, that it would no longer require SAT scores for applicants brought a vitriolic response from recent alumni that the Baltimore Sun published. That opinion piece generated a heated discussion on blogs that the Baltimore Sun published two days later.

I found deeply troubling the arguments made by the alumni for keeping the SAT requirement at Loyola and the tone of their reaction to the news disturbing. The assertion made in the opinion piece that making SAT’s optional for admission will “financially depreciate” the bachelor's degrees granted by Loyola is based on two underlying assumptions that are false.

First, admission to Loyola is not a guarantee of a degree from Loyola. Students have to do the work required to earn the degree. Admission standards should not be confused with academic standards. I am never told the SAT scores, high school grades, or any of the reasons the Loyola admitted the students in my classes. Honestly, I am not interested in any of that information.

I teach my subject to the students enrolled in the class and assigned grades based on performance expectations that have not changed throughout my career. SAT scores have no bearing on the criteria I have established for passing my courses.

I also serve on Loyola’s academic standards committee. At the end of each semester that committee is charged with reviewing student grades and dismissing any students who are not making satisfactory progress towards a degree. Again it is grades earned at Loyola that are reviewed, not the reasons the students were admitted. SAT scores have never entered into these discussions.

Second, college degrees have no “financial value” so it is not possible for them to “depreciate.” A degree is a non-transferable status that cannot be bought or sold. I know this seems like a strange assertion given the wide disparity between the average lifetime earnings of college graduates compared to those without college degrees. But students are mistaken if they believe that degrees are the cause of the higher income typically earned by college graduates.

No employer pays a person because he or she has a college degree. Employees are paid for the performance of work if it has sufficient value that it becomes in the financial best interest of the employer to pay. It happens that the knowledge, skills, and insights that are acquired through the process of obtaining a college degree often results in the ability to perform work that is of greater value to employers. But there are people without degrees who are highly paid because they perform valuable work. It is work that causes payment, not the abilities associated with the degree. Graduates who cannot establish themselves as productive workers will find that their degrees mean very little financially.

So do I think Loyola should become an SAT-optional school? I am in agreement with the new policy. I find the entire concept of “scholastic aptitude” that the SAT purports to measure suspect. Readiness for college depends on acquiring the necessary language, writing, and math skills necessary for college-level work. These are not “aptitudes” that a single test can measure, rather, these are skills acquired through study and practice.

Once in college success is more dependent on attitude than aptitude. Students will do well if they attend class, do the assigned work, and major in a subject that interests them. That sounds simple and trite, but my experience on the Academic Standards Committee has revealed that students who fail in college haven’t mastered those basic practices.

SAT scores were meant to provide a level playing field for college admission by putting students from all backgrounds on equal footing. But, as it usually happens when a number is substituted for judgment, inordinate amounts of time, effort, and expense are allocated toward manipulating the number. Witness the entire test preparation industry that has grown up because of the SAT. Spending thousands of dollars on SAT prep classes defeats the original purpose of a level playing field. It’s time to retire the number.

For recent graduates entering the workforce, college reputation and courses of study are important because it is all employers have as a basis for judging competence and abilities. But within four to five years of graduation it will be performance on the job that counts. For me it has now been 32 years since I entered college and 28 since I graduated. I no longer remember my SAT scores and if my alma mater, the University of Rochester, changes its SAT policy there would be no impact on my life—financial or otherwise.

Joseph Ganem is a physicist and author of the award-winning The Two Headed Quarter: How to See Through Deceptive Numbers and Save Money on Everything You Buy