Date March 5, 2024
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Brown University to reinstate test requirement, retain Early Decision, further study legacy preferences

After months of committee analysis and deliberation, Brown’s president accepted the recommendations of a group charged to examine whether Brown’s admissions practices align with its commitments to excellence, access and diversity.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Brown University President Christina H. Paxson has accepted the recommendations of a committee that examined undergraduate admissions practices to ensure they uphold Brown’s commitments to academic excellence, access and diversity.

The Ad Hoc Committee on Admissions Policies collected and analyzed data, reviewed comparative information, and met with colleagues who shared expertise and student leaders as it studied whether Brown should alter its current Early Decision policy; reinstate its standardized test score requirement or sustain its interim “test-optional” policy; and modify existing preferences for applicants with family connections.

Paxson shared an executive summary of the committee’s work in a Tuesday, March 5, letter to the Brown campus, noting that she has accepted its recommendations:

  • Brown will continue to offer its Early Decision option, which is attractive to prospective students and has contributed to efforts to enroll an undergraduate class that is both highly qualified and diverse.
  • Starting with next year’s application cycle (effective for the Class of 2029), Brown will reinstate the requirement that applicants for first-year admission submit standardized tests scores (the SAT or ACT, except in the rare circumstance when these tests are not available to a student). This will accompany enhanced communications to students and school counselors emphasizing that test scores are interpreted in the context of a student’s background and educational opportunities.
  • Current practices for applicants with family connections — including “legacies” and children of faculty and staff — will remain unchanged while Brown continues to consider a range of complex questions raised by the committee and seeks more input from its community.

The decisions follow six months of analysis and deliberations by the committee, which Paxson charged in September and is composed of senior faculty and alumni members of Brown’s highest governing body, the Corporation of Brown University. The backdrop to the group’s work were national conversations about the ways colleges and universities demonstrate their commitment to building classes that are diverse by many measures. This intensified after the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2023 decision striking down the consideration of race among many factors in admissions.

I continue to be proud of Brown’s strong track record of national leadership in cultivating diversity and inclusion as core tenets for sustaining academic excellence.

Christina H. Paxson President
Headshot of Christina Paxson

“I continue to be proud of Brown’s strong track record of national leadership in cultivating diversity and inclusion as core tenets for sustaining academic excellence,” Paxson said. “I am committed to ensuring these values are reflected in the way we build our student body. The decisions we have reached regarding Early Decision and standardized test requirements remain true to these values, and continuing to examine family connections is the right decision for the complicated questions this issue raises for our community.”

Sustaining the Early Decision option

The committee was asked to review data on applicants admitted through existing Early Decision and regular admissions cycles, and make a recommendation on whether Brown should alter its current policy. Through Early Decision, prospective students express a commitment to attend Brown if accepted — enabling applicants to know where they will attend college and the University to determine the composition of part of its incoming class at an early date.

The committee recommended that Brown sustain its Early Decision option, noting that it “is attractive to students, consistent with peer practices, and contributes to efforts to enroll a class that is diverse and highly qualified.” It also recommended the following: that the University monitor data to ensure that the Early Decision applicant pool contributes to the excellence and diversity of the student population, and that Regular Decision remains a viable option for applicants not prepared to commit early; that Brown expand efforts to convey financial aid policies to potential applicants so they know Brown meets 100% of demonstrated need; and that the University ensures that applicants, families and counselors are educated about online financial aid calculators in order to remove uncertainty about financial aid awards that may deter some potential Early Decision applicants.

“We’re confident that retaining Early Decision will benefit a broad range of admitted students who gain the assurance of making their college decision early with the knowledge that Brown’s financial aid will meet full demonstrated need,” said Provost Francis J. Doyle III, who served as committee co-chair with Brown alumna and trustee Preetha Basaviah. “Early Decision helps us enroll extraordinarily talented students whose enthusiasm to earn a Brown degree makes clear they’ll be active, engaged members of our academic community.”

According to data analyzed by the committee, Early Decision applicants have stronger academic records than Regular Decision candidates. And while they are less diverse in terms of race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status, the overall size and strength of the ED applicant pool means that Brown’s admissions team can identify and admit diverse and highly qualified students in a manner that reflects the University’s commitments to excellence, access and diversity.

A particular area of focus was the national concern that binding Early Decision programs can make it impossible for applicants to compare financial aid awards and secure the most competitive offer — a factor that could discourage low-income applicants. The committee found that at Brown, financial aid awards that students receive in Early Decision are the same as the corresponding awards in Regular Decision. Among recent cohorts of students admitted early, more than 60% expressed an intent to apply for financial aid, and 15% to 19% are the first in their families to attend college. The Office of Financial Aid provides a number of online tools and calculators to help families estimate the cost of attendance, and those accurate predictors can serve to reassure applicants who may be deterred by the “sticker price” that a Brown education is affordable to them, according to the committee.

“We encourage Brown’s admissions and financial aid offices to continue to highlight the utility of these tools and to continue to monitor the composition of the Early Decision applicant pool with respect to diversity, including of students applying for financial aid,” the committee wrote in its summary.

Reinstating the standardized test requirement

Brown will reinstate the standardized testing requirement beginning with the next admission cycle for the Class of 2029, whose students will enroll at Brown in the 2025-26 academic year.

Consideration of test scores in the context of each student’s background will advance Brown’s commitment to academic excellence and the University’s focus on ensuring that talented students from the widest possible range of backgrounds can access a Brown education.

Francis J. Doyle III Provost
Headshot of Frank Doyle

Since COVID-19 forced the closure of high schools and ACT/SAT testing centers in 2020, Brown’s requirement that undergraduate applicants submit standardized test scores has remained suspended. The committee assessed the impact of test requirements on Brown’s applicant pool, student body composition and student outcomes, with a focus on recommending whether Brown should remain “test optional.” The ability to compare data from multiple years of Brown’s temporary test-optional policy proved valuable.

The committee’s primary recommendations were to reinstate the requirement that first-year applicants submit test scores while increasing outreach about Brown’s “testing in context” approach to ensure understanding that tests are interpreted in the context of an applicant’s overall record, background and opportunities through a process that considers the whole person.

“Our analysis made clear that SAT and ACT scores are among the key indicators that help predict a student’s ability to succeed and thrive in Brown’s demanding academic environment,” Doyle said. “Consideration of test scores in the context of each student’s background will advance Brown’s commitment to academic excellence and the University’s focus on ensuring that talented students from the widest possible range of backgrounds can access a Brown education.”

The committee’s analysis showed that standardized tests provide an important piece of information about the applicant’s performance in the context of available opportunities and serve as a strong predictor of a student’s academic performance once enrolled.

“Data from the Class of 2025 and Class of 2026 indicate that academic outcomes — whether measured by the fraction of grades that are high or by the fraction of students who struggle academically — are strongly correlated with test scores …” the summary stated. “This relationship holds across all subgroups, including within groups from less-advantaged vs. more-advantaged high schools, and for HUG vs. non-HUG students,” referring to students from historically underrepresented groups.

Further, the data suggested unintended adverse outcomes of test-optional policies in the admissions process itself, potentially undermining the goal of increasing access. The committee was concerned that some students from less-advantaged backgrounds were choosing not to submit scores under the test-optional policy, when doing so could actually increase their chances of being admitted.

Members were cognizant of the fact that applicants from less-advantaged backgrounds may present with scores lower than the typical range and that more privileged applicants with high scores may benefit from test preparation and tutoring. However, strong testing, interpreted in the context of a student’s background, may serve to demonstrate their ability to succeed at Brown, the summary noted — and the lack of scores may mean that admissions officers hesitate to admit them.

“The issues at the core of the committee’s deliberations concerned the manner in which testing requirements intersect with the principles of academic excellence, equity, access and diversity,” the summary stated. “The majority of the committee concluded that reinstating the requirement … is consistent with Brown’s commitments to excellence and equity and will serve to expand access and diversity.”

In reinstating the requirement for first-year applicants, Brown will permit exceptions in rare cases when an applicant is unable to take the test. The University will remain test-optional for student veterans, transfer applicants and Resumed Undergraduate Education students.

Exploring preferences for applicants with family connections

While committee members explored data and deliberated extensively about preferences for students with family connections to Brown, its ultimate recommendation was to develop plans to gain more insights into the complex questions raised by those preferences to inform a path toward a long-term decision.

“The issue of admissions preferences raises complicated questions about equity and access, about merit and unearned advantage, about the tangible and intangible impact of affinity, loyalty and community — and about how to weigh compelling but competing values,” the summary stated.

The committee discussed advantages and disadvantages of legacy admissions. According to the summary, the portion of Brown applicants and matriculants who are legacies has declined — the share of legacy applicants decreased by one-quarter over the last six years, and the share of legacy students in Brown’s enrolled classes declined by about 30%. In the Class of 2027, 8% of students are legacies.

On one hand, the committee found, students whose parents attended Brown tend to be highly qualified, with academic records that are stronger than that of average matriculants. They are more likely to accept admission offers, and legacy preferences create a sense of community and loyalty among graduates. On the other hand, an analysis suggests that admitting fewer legacy students could potentially result in modest increases in the numbers of low-income and first-generation students, and students from historically underrepresented groups.

Another salient concern the committee noted is whether it is fair to end legacy preferences when the applicant pool is beginning to reflect a more diverse population of Brown alumni. Those supporting continued legacy preferences cited a commitment to strengthening multi-generational loyalty and alumni engagement. They also stressed the importance of fairness to more recent, and more diverse, graduates whose children might benefit.

Preferences for children of Brown employees also elicited mixed views. That population is small overall — on the order of 1% to 2% of students. Applicants tend to be highly qualified, and the admissions advantage might be regarded as an important tool for recruitment and retention, as well as building community loyalty, the committee noted. On the other hand, those applicants are relatively privileged, on average — although children of employees who did not attend college also are regularly admitted to Brown. Ultimately, the committee concluded that it had too little information to come to a recommendation.

According to the summary, it was difficult for committee members to arrive at consensus on preferences for family connections in the absence of further information and input from members of the larger Brown community. The committee recommended that Brown continue to evaluate data on applicants with family connections and consider the questions and principles raised by the committee, with attention to the policies and practices that will best serve goals of academic excellence, equity, access and diversity.

“Developing a recommendation about family connections that reflects Brown’s values and honors its commitments requires further deliberation and reflection,” the summary noted. “The committee will benefit from opportunities to learn more about the perspectives of faculty, staff, alumni and students to inform its ongoing consideration of these issues.”