Kalid Ali always dreamed of getting a degree from Macalester College in St. Paul, but an average ACT score had sunk his hopes of getting into the selective institution.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic took hold last spring. Standardized tests became nearly impossible to schedule and colleges nationwide chose to waive ACT and SAT score requirements. That gave Ali, a senior at Como Park Senior High School in St. Paul, an opportunity to highlight his good grades and involvement with the school board, student organizations and sports teams instead.

"I just wanted them to see the other side of my work other than just the test," said Ali, who opted not to include his test score in his application. "I think that this option gives students a little bit of hope that they can actually get into these schools that are selective."

Emboldened by new admissions standards, students like Ali have driven a dramatic surge in freshman applications to selective private colleges across the country. In Minnesota, liberal arts schools such as Macalester, Carleton College and St. Olaf College are swimming in record numbers of applications while less-selective institutions — including the state's flagship university — have not experienced the same spike in interest.

Nationally, applications to selective institutions increased 17% compared to just 6% for more accessible colleges, according to data released in March by the Common App, a standard college application used by more than 900 schools. What remains to be seen is whether selective colleges will land a larger and more diverse freshman class or send out a higher percentage of rejection letters.

"There is a concern that what it will mean is actually schools will have to become more selective," said Geoff Wilson, executive director of College Possible Minnesota, a nonprofit college access organization.

At Macalester, freshman applications for the coming fall semester rose 42%. St. Olaf and Carleton, both located in Northfield, also experienced significant increases of about 20% and 15%, respectively.

The colleges saw increases in applications from Minnesota, out-of-state and international students. They also noticed more applications from students of color and first-generation students — those who are the first in their family to attend college. Macalester received 21% more applications from U.S. students of color and 45% more first-generation applicants. About 12% more first-generation students applied to Carleton this year than last.

Macalester waived application fees. Both it and St. Olaf added a new early admission round. And all three of the private colleges stepped up their virtual recruitment to reach students from Minnesota and across the globe. Those efforts contributed to the growth in applications, administrators said, but the schools' decision to not require ACT or SAT scores from applicants undoubtedly had the greatest effect.

Institutions that admit a higher percentage of applicants did not see the same boost from waiving test score requirements. The University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus received about 5% fewer freshman applications for fall 2021. Applications to the University of St. Thomas, Minnesota's largest private college, are on par with last year.

About half of applicants to Macalester, St. Olaf and Carleton did not submit test scores, administrators said.

"It opened up a pathway to apply to these institutions," said Jeff Allen, Macalester's vice president for admissions and financial aid.

With his test score no longer an impediment, Ali was admitted into Macalester and will double major in international studies and economics there this fall. Ali, who moved to the U.S. from Ethiopia in 2013, said he hopes to pursue a career in politics and diplomacy after college, following in the footsteps of one of his idols, former Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan, who was a Macalester alum.

Competition still fierce

While students may feel they have a better chance of getting into selective colleges without test scores, many are facing more competition this year for a fixed number of spots.

Macalester received thousands more applications but will not expand the size of its freshman class, Allen said. The college's target is 545 freshmen and there simply is not enough residence hall space to accommodate more, he said. Macalester requires its students to live on campus their first two years.

In a typical year, Macalester admits 35% to 40% of applicants. This year, the college admitted 31%, Allen said.

Carleton's acceptance rate dropped from about 19% to 17% this year, said Art Rodriguez, the school's vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid. About 60 spots in the targeted class of 545 freshmen were taken by students who were accepted to attend last fall but delayed their enrollment due to the pandemic. That left admissions staff with fewer spots to offer to this year's applicants.

"It was just a more substantial group that we had to balance," Rodriguez said, noting the number of gap-year students was unusually high.

While St. Olaf became slightly more selective, it did admit 10% more students than last year in response to the spike in applications, said Chris George, the college's dean of admissions and financial aid.

St. Olaf's 2020 freshman class was smaller than expected, so the college had some leeway to admit more students this year. The private institution recently broke ground on a new residence hall, too, so "we'll be able to support a bigger class if it comes in that way," George said.

"We're not looking to get more and more selective," he said.

It is too early to tell where fall enrollment will land with freshman commitment deadlines still ahead. But administrators from the three private colleges say they hope to welcome a freshman class that is equally or more racially diverse than last year's.

With larger pools of applicants to choose from, Wilson of College Possible Minnesota, said there is no excuse for selective colleges to not make progress in diversifying their student populations.

"If they have more applications and they have more students of color and more low-income students applying, what are they going to do with that?" Wilson said.

"We ought to see a pretty big increase in low-income students and students of color in the incoming class as well. And if we don't see that, then I think we've got some serious questions to ask about why that is."

ryan.faircloth@startribune.com 612-673-4234 • Twitter: @ryanfaircloth