A few months ago I wrote an article about the creation of “test optional” policies by colleges. I stated that the policies had nothing to do with the students and everything to do with universities and their survival.

Recently I’ve come across two items that clarify that.

What the headlines aren’t saying

First, colleges are in trouble. Not the ones that are grabbing the headlines because of record application numbers. When Colgate University has over a 100% increase in applications, life is good at some levels.

But not at all levels. This article from Inside Higher Ed does a great job of capturing the problem. It focuses on early application numbers and what they are suggesting about a range of schools. You may have heard about how Harvard was up in applications and down in number admitted. Same at the other highly selective schools. What isn’t yet clear is how things are going to shake out at the other 98% of schools not in “the top 100”, whatever the top 100 is.

“D” stands for Developmental

The other item came from conversations with parents.

Many colleges require students to demonstrate the ability to take college classes. That makes sense. In Texas, students can do this by having a qualifying SAT (480 Reading/Writing, 530 Math), ACT (23 Composite with 19 in English and Math), or minimum English III or Algebra II EOC scores. Otherwise, they can take Texas Success Initiative Assessment (TSIA). The University of Oklahoma requires a 510 in Reading/Writing or 19 in English or having already completed a composition course such as AP or dual credit courses. OU students also have the option of taking College Board’s Accuplacer test for free for a better assessment.

If students applied under a test optional policies, they haven’t offered evidence of their competency. Colleges are automatically placing students who applied without test scores in the developmental classes. These classes usually have a course code like DRDG 0112 or DENG 0113 in the case of Oklahoma. That “0” at the front of the course number stands for zero hours of credit. Students are being automatically assigned to classes for which they will not get any credit but they will pay full price. In the case of OU, it is 9 hours of credit between the Reading, English, and Math classes. 60% of a student’s first semester could be spent in developmental classes.

What that means

It might not be a problem for most students. Many will have taken AP English III or Dual Credit English IV. Many will have an EOC score they can use. However, many more students might not know about it until it’s too late. I’m thinking about the first generation college student whose parents might not be aware of the problem.

I like to believe the best in the system. Colleges really don’t have a choice in this decision. In Texas, it’s the law. (I’m not sure about Oklahoma.). I don’t think colleges are doing this as an intentional revenue generator.

Unfortunately, it is also going to mean extra thousands of dollars for students who aren’t expecting it. If the average cost per hour is about $400, it’s automatically an extra $3600, which doesn’t include the incidental cost of adding almost a full semester to the graduation plan. The students who need to matriculate on time the most will start college nearly a semester behind. And for no reason.

I’ve talked with a couple of colleagues who feel like this is a nothingburger. They’re probably right. At the same time, it’s going to mean thousands of dollars for the students who can afford it the least.

My question is who is going to be there to tell the students ahead of time. School counselors? In school year 2020-21, school counselors have so much on their plates that this can slip by easily. I spoke to a couple about the development, and our conversation was the first time they’d heard about it. Maybe it isn’t a problem. Or maybe it’s one that parents haven’t realized, yet.

And maybe College advisors will help. I talked with a student today for my podcast who got terrible advice from her college advisor that could have delayed her graduation by a year. I’m not sure college advisors whose playbook is full of great advice like, “You should only take 12 hours a semester your first year” are really concerned about students unnecessarily adding a few extra thousands dollars to the college bill.

What you should do

First, make sure you know your school’s requirements. Check the information you’re getting from them to see what classes you’re going to be eligible for. This isn’t likely to be an issue at a highly selective private school. It is going to be something very common at most public universities. They’re worried about retention and want to make sure the student has the support they need.

Second, if you’re not sure, contact your college’s admissions office and ask. If they can’t come up with a straightforward answer, keep that in mind when you’re deciding where to put your deposit. (I emailed OU’s office today with a question and had a straightforward answer back in a couple of hours.)

It’s entirely possible that you’re already exempt but they don’t have the paperwork on file. That’s going to be the easiest solution.

If you’re not already exempt, figure out the deadline you’re working with. The Accuplacer might be a great, free option. Or the TSIA if you have to. You also still have time to take another SAT or ACT, and most schools will superscore for this purpose. You could focus on just the sections you need. You’ll have to pay for another test, but that’s cheaper than the thousands of dollars in tuition not to mention the extra semester of room and board.