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July 29

Accessible Admissions Starts with Reducing Friction [test-optional]


If you don’t like your results, you’ve got to change what you’re doing. But in admissions, that could be a risky proposition. We talked with James Steen about the risks they took with test-optional admissions to reduce friction in their admissions process.

Whether or not prospective students need an ACT or SAT score to come to college is a relatively new idea.

It’s also controversial.

There’s been a lot of conversation in industry publications about different aspects of test-score optional admissions from a racial equality and diversity standpoint to a pragmatic standpoint connected to the pandemic.

In this fascinating conversation, we listen to James Steen, Vice President of Enrollment Management at Houston Baptist University, talk about his journey to reduce friction in their admissions process.

Reasons to Go Test-Optional

James Steen, Vice President of Enrollment Management at Houston Baptist University, talks about test-optional helps reduce friction in their admissions process.As far as results are concerned, the facts show that James is doing something right.

Since he came to HBU, freshman enrollment has more than doubled, applications have risen by 300%, and undergrad enrollment has gone up 33%.

The road to these numbers entails many crucial decisions, many of which were not guaranteed to succeed.

But without a doubt, one of the biggest risks they’ve taken recently is going test-optional for their admissions process.

For James, this decision has been something he’s thought deeply about.

Five or six years ago, I wrote a paper when I was working on my doctorate about the whole test-optional process. I took the stance in that paper that the problem is not necessarily with the test, as much as it is with our admissions policies.

[However] as long as directors of admission have policies that are fair and equitable, it’s not necessarily the test that is the problem.

Increasing diversity is one of the biggest reasons that colleges and universities have gone test-optional in the past.

For many, it is simply a way to do the right thing in increasing accessibility to higher education for first-gen college students or ethnic minorities.

Source: Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

But with approximately 43% Hispanic population, 20% black population, 19% white population, and 12% Asian population, Houston Baptist University was already an incredibly diverse school.

Going test-optional for HBU was about something different.

It wasn’t until 2020 arrived with all the massive challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic that James bought into the idea wholeheartedly.

I didn’t necessarily go into the pandemic with this whole mindset that test-optional was going to be the greatest thing since sliced bread. But I’m coming out of this crazy COVID year as a convert, if you will, to test-optional. For us at HBU especially, it really has been a game changer.

He described how HBU was pushed to make such a risky move, but that it has since paid off.

We really made that switch because we had to. Literally, students were not able to take standardized tests [during the pandemic]. They did not have SAT or ACT scores readily available. So we did it as a strategic decision, but I would say it has been a game changer.

The pandemic brought challenges, and the HBU enrollment team met it head-on by making this massive decision to go test-optional.

And it’s amazing to see how successful it has been for them.

So did this decision only come down to a pragmatic decision?

No, it was much deeper than that.

Going Test-Optional to Remove Barriers

As he described the decision to us, I could hear the heart behind the decision.

HBU’s admissions team was listening to their audience, hearing their questions, and listening to their concerns.

 We really went into it with the message that “We understand what you’re going through. We understand that there are problems and issues, that there’s limited access to standardized testing. We want to do whatever we can to make HBU and this admission process as accessible to you as possible.” 

This service-oriented approach is a big reason why the test-optional decision has resonated with prospective students.

It wasn’t easy to make this decision.

HBU had to “put a stake in the ground” and refuse to go back on the decision.

But once this message got out through all of their marketing channels, the response was incredible.

Removing friction is key to successful enrollment marketing.

Whether or not the friction comes in the form of national test scores, enrollment marketers and admissions officers can improve their admissions results by identifying barriers in the way of new students and seeking ways to remove them.

An unwieldy RFI form could be a source of friction, for example.

If your forms are jammed with too many questions, chances are prospects will decide they simply can’t complete the form and abandon the funnel.

If you continually make the admissions process smoother by removing these kinds of barriers, you help keep prospects moving forward through the marketing funnel.

This is a process of listening, brainstorming new ways of doing things, and then having the courage to execute on the new changes.

So no matter where you land on the whole discussion of whether test-optional is good for higher education or not, we all can learn from HBU’s success by removing friction from the admissions process.

Discover more when you listen to the podcast!

Like all of our blog post reviews of The Higher Ed Marketer podcasts, there’s so much more to learn in the podcasts themselves.

Listen to our interview with James Steen to get even more insights into:

  • How test-optional makes admissions more accessible.
  • How to approach merit awards without test scores.
  • How test-optional reduces friction in the application process.
  • How to market test-optional both externally and internally.

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Subscribe to The Higher Ed Marketer podcast today!

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