Sep 25, 2015

7 potential game changers for the Class of 2017

Over the next year, some significant changes in the college admission process will be set in motion.  And for better or worse, they will have the most immediate impact on the high school class of 2017.  

While first-time college applicants may or may not be totally aware of how various adjustments in testing, financial aid, applications and admissions requirements affect them, their advisers are certain to experience fallout from the confusion that inevitably follows major changes in the system. And many are already starting to dread the prospect of dealing with so much commotion, on so many different fronts, all at one time.

While much more will be written about each of the following game-changers for the class of 2017, here is a brief glimpse of what we already know they’ll be dealing with:

A NEW PSAT.  The College Board is set to launch a redesigned PSAT/NMSQT in October, 2015.  In addition to introducing students (and others) to the new or redesigned SAT (see below), it will serve as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT) for the class of 2017.  While the Board has released some practice information for the new PSAT/NMSQT, test prep organizations that specifically target the NMSQT have been scrambling to pull together enough material to prepare students for the scholarship competition. The upshot has been considerable last-minute discussion on the content, timing and scaling of the new test, much of which has been entirely missed by the majority of students taking it in a few weeks.  Add to the confusion the fact that for the first (and hopefully last) time, the PSAT will not be available for administration on a Saturday.  For schools and school systems that have traditionally refused to take instructional time away from students to give the test during the school day, the absence of a Saturday alternative has posed administrative and logistical difficulty, especially making sure that all members of the class of 2017, who need the test for NMS consideration, have the opportunity to take it.  While the good news is that test-takers are free to “guess” on the new PSAT/NMSQT (all penalties for wrong answers have been removed), the bad news is the test is 35 minutes longer than the old one.

A NEW SAT.  In March 2014, the ColIege Board announced that the SAT would be entirely redesigned for debut two years later in March 2016—just in time for the class of 2017 to pilot.  Changes to the test include a new structure, a new score, new sections, and even an all-new approach to testing, which appears remarkably similar to the ACT (see below).  The announcement sent the test prep industry into a frenzy of speculation and detailed analyses of each tidbit of information released about the new test.  But for the class of 2017, the biggest issues ultimately came down to which test to take and when.  Most experts agree that it’s not such a bad idea to take the old SAT (assuming most colleges will accept the results for the class of 2017), especially if the student has some track record of doing well on the old format.  And no one thinks taking the new test in March or May, before any results become available, is a good plan.  So where does that leave members of the class of 2017, who need test results to help formulate college lists, schedule tours and otherwise plan for applying to college? Take the ACT and see.  There’s always June for the new SAT, if results look promising after the first administrations.  While the good news is that the Essay (Writing) section is now optional, the bad news is that the new test with the essay is longer.

A NEW ACT. A month after the College Board made its announcement, ACT announced that minor adjustments would be made to the Writing section of its test for September 2015—about six months before the new SAT.  While the changes were subtle, they did call for a slightly different approach and set of skills. Because of the focus on the new SAT, most test-takers failed to take note of the change and it remains to be seen what kind of an impact it will have on the class of 2017.  As a side note, however, ACT used this opportunity to expand the reporting it does on test results.  Starting with the September test, ACT will generate two new hybrid scores in English Language Arts and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).  And for approximately 450 institutional participants in ACT Research Services, ACT will be providing assessments of “Overall GPA Chances of Success” in general categories of majors (education, business administration, liberal arts, and engineering) as well as “Specific Course Chances of Success” in areas such as freshman English, college algebra, history, chemistry, psychology etc.  Test-takers, who provide key information necessary to make these assessments during the registration process, will not be sent these reports. They go directly to colleges to which the student is applying—whether the applicant wants them to or not.  Finally, a digital version of the ACT is on the horizon for some members of the class of 2017, with expanded release planned for spring 2016.  While the good news is that most admissions professionals are recommending the ACT for the class of 2017, the bad news is that some of the reports ACT plans to send to colleges may not be what applicants want colleges to see.

A NEW FAFSA Timeline.  Starting next year, students and their families will be able to file their FAFSA as early as October.  For purposes of filing early, applicants will be using “prior-prior-year” tax information, which federal officials hope will help students and their families determine the cost of attending college much earlier in the process. For the class of 2017, this means the base year for financial aid eligibility would be this year and not next year.  In other words, by now there is nothing to be done in terms of changing a family’s financial circumstances to align more favorably with federal requirements.  The good news is that colleges will no longer have an excuse for delaying the provision of financial aid packages for those submitting early.  The bad news is that it’s too late for the class of 2017 to pay down the mortgage or max out retirement accounts in time to have an impact on financial aid eligibility. And the worst news is that colleges are wondering how they will be able to redesign application timelines and financial aid processes to make all this happen in time for implementation next year.

A NEW Application.  Working quietly behind the scenes, an “exploratory committee” composed of some big-name member colleges in the Consortium on Financing Higher Education (COFHE) has been working on a new application platform designed to be an “alternative” to the Common Application.  Last year, an RFP was circulated to major vendors, and CollegeNet was selected to put the plan in place.  Although details have been slow to emerge, The Chronicle reports the group, known as the “Coalition,” has expanded to include members of the Association of American Universities and the Annapolis Group, which represents more than 100 liberal arts colleges. According to The Chronicle, the new Coalition Application proposes to engage students as early as the 9th grade by encouraging the development of an online or digital profile and portfolio. The plan is to make the new application available next year, in time for use by the class of 2017, although it seems unlikely that most would benefit from an application dependent on long-term portfolio development. Nevertheless, it’s rumored that announcements will be made at the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) annual meeting in San Diego, next week.  

NEW Admissions Requirements.  It’s not unusual for colleges to make changes in their admission requirements from one year to the next.  But this year and next are setting up a perfect storm for applicants and those who advise them.  First, with the debut of the new SAT, colleges are rethinking the importance of the writing or essay sections of both the SAT and the ACT.  Some, like Penn and Swarthmore, decided to go ahead and drop these requirements for fall 2016 admission.  But many more are making the decision to no longer require these sections for fall 2017 admission.  It’s hard to keep up with, but both the College Board and ACT have tools for checking whether or not the tests are required.  In addition, changes in Common Application membership guidelines have resulted in significant numbers of colleges dropping essay and recommendation requirements.  To keep up with these changes and those to come is all but a full time job.  And don’t look for press releases.  Colleges don’t always feel the need to make announcements regarding fundamental changes in their admissions policies. The good news is that colleges generally clearly post admissions requirements on their websites.  The bad news is they can be changed in an instant with only a few strokes of a keyboard.

Many NEW Test-optional/Test-flexible Colleges.  Since spring of 2014, about 30 colleges and universities have announced the adoption of test-optional or test-flexible admissions plans, according to FairTest.  The most recent announcements have come from George Washington University, Marymount University, and Catholic University.  But they join Beloit, Hoftstra, Temple, VCU, Wesleyan and an impressive number of other institutions seeking different ways to evaluate applicants.  It’s unclear whether it’s the new SAT or a focus on successful outcomes reported by test-optional colleges that is  driving the trend. Regardless, the good news is that an increasing number of colleges are putting test scores aside in favor of more holistic approaches to admissions.

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