Jianna Curbelo attends a career-focused public high school in New York City, works at McDonald’s and lives in the Bronx with her unemployed mother, who did not graduate from college.
So when her high-school counselor and her Ph.D.-educated aunt urged her to apply to Cornell, on her path to becoming a veterinarian, she had her doubts. But she also had her hopes.
“It was one of those, ‘I’ll give it a shot, boost my ego a little bit,’” she said, laughing infectiously, of her decision to apply.
Then she got the unexpected news: She was accepted. She figured she was helped by the fact that Cornell, like hundreds of other universities, had suspended its standardized test score requirement for admission during the coronavirus pandemic. She also said she believed that protests kindled by the death of George Floyd had caught the attention of admissions officers, inspiring some to draft essay questions aimed at eliciting students’ thoughts on racial justice and the value of diversity.
“Those protests really did inspire me,” she said. “It made it seem like the times were sort of changing, in a way.”
Whether college admissions have changed for the long haul remains unclear. But early data suggests that many elite universities have admitted a higher proportion of traditionally underrepresented students this year — Black, Hispanic and those who were from lower-income communities or were the first generation in their families to go to college, or some combination — than ever before.
The gains seem to reflect a moment of national racial and social awareness not seen since the late 1960s that motivated universities to put a premium on diversity and that prodded students to expand their horizons on possible college experiences.
“I would say the likelihood is that the movement that arose in the wake of George Floyd’s murder has exerted some influence on these institutions’ admissions officers,” said Jerome Karabel, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and a historian of college admission.
“But I think an equally important factor may be the effect of the pandemic on the applicant pool — they had a much broader range of low-income and minority applicants to choose from.”
Consider Jaylen Cocklin, 18, of Columbia, S.C., the son of a retired police officer and a state worker. Jaylen, whose two older brothers attend historically Black institutions, decided in middle school that he wanted to go to Harvard, but the events of the past year were a part of his thinking as he weighed his opportunities.
“It was just another thing driving me to go to Harvard and prove everyone wrong, and defy the common stereotype placed upon so many African-American males today,” he said.
He also suspected that Harvard might be thinking it had some duty to young men like him “because of the social outcry.” And, now he says, it appears that he was right.
He finds himself deciding among Harvard, Emory, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania, Wake Forest, Davidson and Georgetown.
The growth in minority admissions at top schools, both private universities and state flagships, has been driven in part by an overall explosion in applications there. Although the total number of students applying to college this year increased only slightly (though slightly more for Black, Hispanic and Asian students than white ones), the number of applications to top schools increased drastically across the board — by 43 percent to Harvard and 66 percent to M.I.T., for example.
At the University of California, Los Angeles, freshman applications rose by 28 percent, and even more for racial minorities — by 48 percent for African-Americans, by 33 percent for Hispanic students and by 16 percent for American Indian students.
The easing of the reliance on standardized tests, which critics say often work to the advantage of more educated and affluent families who can afford tutors and test prep, was most likely the most important factor in encouraging minority applicants.
Only 46 percent of applications this year came from students who reported a test score, down from 77 percent last year, according to Common App, the not-for-profit organization that offers the application used by more than 900 schools. First-generation, lower-income, as well as Black, Hispanic and Native American students were much less likely than others to submit their test scores on college applications.
Schools had been dropping the testing requirement for years, but during the pandemic a wave of 650 schools joined in. In most cases, a student with good scores could still submit them and have them considered; a student who had good grades and recommendations but fell short on test scores could leave them out.
Most schools have announced that they will continue the test-optional experiment next year, as the normal rhythm of the school year is still roiled by the pandemic. It is unclear whether the shift foretells a permanent change in how students are selected.
Gabriella Codrington, 17, a Black student at Bard, a selective public high school in New York City, submitted her SAT score only to her “safety” schools, like the University of Delaware and Temple University, where she thought it would help her application. She withheld it from more selective schools like Harvard, Michigan, Stanford and N.Y.U., emphasizing her grades and resilience in the face of cancer, now in remission. “It definitely gave me a bit more relief,” she said of the test-optional policy.
Neither her father, a doorman, nor her mother, a sales associate, went to college. She has been admitted to N.Y.U.
Jaylen Cocklin’s family (his father went to a historically Black college and his mother to a Christian one) encouraged him to aim high.
He “just grinded” for the SAT, he said, using a free online program, books and lessons on YouTube, and drove 45 miles because of the pandemic to take the first of two SAT tests. His score was high enough that he felt it would help him stand out at top schools, so he submitted it.
In his application essay, he wrote about the “struggle to be who I was” at A.C. Flora High School, in suburban Columbia, S.C. “I’ve been quite stereotyped by being African-American, the common stereotypes — thuggish, hoodish, looking down on what African-Americans can do,” he said.
But he also had to deal with being stereotyped as “whitewashed.” He wrote about his efforts to find a balance.
As students like Jaylen and Gabriella told their stories, admissions officers listened.
“You could tell the story of America through the eyes of all these young people, and how they dealt with the times, Black Lives Matter, the wave of unemployment and the uncertainties of the political moment, wanting to make a difference,” said MJ Knoll-Finn, senior vice president for enrollment management at New York University.
At N.Y.U., this year’s admitted class is about 29 percent Black or Hispanic students, up from 27 percent last year, and 20 percent first-generation students, up from 15 percent.
At Harvard, the proportion of admitted students who are Black jumped to 18 percent from 14.8 percent last year. If all of them enrolled, there would be about 63 more Black students in this year’s freshman class than if they were admitted at last year’s rate. Asian-Americans saw the second biggest increase, to 27.2 percent from 24.5 percent, which could be meaningful if a lawsuit accusing Harvard of systematically discriminating against Asian-Americans is taken up by the Supreme Court.
The percentage of Black students offered a spot at the University of Southern California rose to 8.5 percent from 6 percent, and Latino students to 18 percent from 15 percent.
Stu Schmill, dean of admissions at M.I.T., said the school did not release the breakdown of the admitted class because it was not the final enrolling class. “But I can tell you that there is a higher percentage of students of color this year than last,” he said.
A number of schools did not report admissions figures by race, instead reporting nonwhite “students of color” (including Asians) as a group, which generally showed an increase.
Once students actually accept an offer of admission and enroll, the diversity tally may look different, reflecting the difference between students admitted and where those students choose to enroll.
Some admissions experts worry that making standardized tests, like the SAT, optional will make it more difficult to select top students, especially at a time of widespread grade inflation. But when tests were required, “students were taking themselves out of the running,” said Cassie Magesis, director of post-secondary access for the Urban Assembly, a network of small schools that includes the one that Jianna Curbelo attends.
Admissions directors said that in the absence of test scores, they drilled deeper into not only high school grades, but also the rigor of courses taken in high school as well as personal essays and recommendations from teachers and guidance counselors.
Some hired a small army of application readers, like N.Y.U., which added 50 new readers, more than doubling its regular reading staff.
Even some admissions directors who think that standardized tests have been misused have mixed feelings about eliminating them altogether
“In some ways, I would say good riddance to the SAT,” said Joy St. John, dean of admission and financial aid at Wellesley College. “It feels like we just can’t stop gaslighting disadvantaged students.”
Still, she said testing could identify students who rose above their environment, or who excelled in certain subjects, like math and science. “There are aspects I will miss if we don’t have it,” she said. As imperfect as the process is, the admissions directors said they welcomed students taking a chance on challenging schools.
Ms. Knoll-Finn of N.Y.U. said. “Why not reach for the stars and see what you can get?”
Stephanie Saul contributed reporting. Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.