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Baylor Trying to Game U.S. News Rankings by Paying Freshmen to Retake SATs? 

Monday, October 20, 2008

The New York Times recently published a story about Baylor University paying incoming freshmen $300 to retake the SAT and awarding them a $1,000 merit scholarship if they raised their SAT score 50 points. Just to clarify, Baylor paid students who were already admitted to the school $300 to retake the SAT.

Why Was Baylor Paying Admitted Students to Retake the SAT?

While the university claimed that much of the motivation for letting incoming freshmen retake the SAT was to award additional merit aid (that is, the $1,000 merit scholarship if they raised their score 50 points), the tactics seem a little fishy. The initiative appears to be a veiled attempt to improve the school's standing in popular college ranking guides.

First, the offer was only open to incoming freshmen. No upperclassmen were offered the opportunity to do the same. Why is that significant? Well, because the test scores of upperclassmen have already been reported to organizations like U.S. News and World Report and Princeton Review in past years and won't have any affect on the school's current rankings.

Second, it was not as though they had pre-defined standards for merit aid and were encouraging students who fell just short of those standards to retake the SAT so they could qualify. That might seem compassionate, in some way, letting a kid who scored an 1220 on the SAT and fell just short of a 1250 cut-off for a scholarship give it another try. You could qualify for the merit aid whether you had a 1000 SAT score or a 1300 SAT score.

Finally, if it was mostly about giving out additional merit aid, aren't there better ways to give out scholarships rather than making a freshman retake the SAT? One quick idea could be to tie the merit scholarship to community service.

The Results of Paying Students and the Criticism that Followed

The program cost the school a reported $862,000, and the average SAT score of incoming freshmen climbed just 10 points from 1200 to 1210. When the news broke in the university's student newspaper, The Lariat, the school received criticism from all quarters of the university. The newspaper released a highly critical op-ed piece, the faculty senate condemned the practice, and many students on campus derided it as unfair and out of line with Baylor's institutional values. Criticism also came from the admission professionals around the country.

Baylor Stops the Program

In response to the mounting criticism, Baylor has stopped the program. It's unclear whether it was initially intended to be a one-year program or an ongoing offer to incoming freshmen.

The whole affair has stoked the fires for critics of published rankings and for critics of standardized tests.

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