Some more thinking about Test Optional


This week at DePaul begins a series of farewells as Helmut Epp leaves the position of Provost that he’s held for seven of his 38 years at DePaul.  The Newsline Story that should be out tomorrow contains a brief summary of an amazing life led by a remarkable man.  But this copy, taken from the original, stood out:

Epp attended Evanston Township High School, although not for as long as is the norm. He was suspended at age 15 and expelled at 16—the legal age at which a student can be removed from school. His crime was taking a graduate math class at nearby Northwestern University when he should have been in class or study hall at Evanston. “You could say I’m a high school dropout, although that’s not technically correct because I didn’t drop out. I was asked to leave,” says Epp with his trademark wry sense of humor. 

He then enrolled in an undergraduate program for younger students at the University of Chicago. Cash-strapped and unable to afford to live on campus, his long daily commute from Evanston to Hyde Park became too much, and he left school after one quarter. He spent three years working intermittently programming 1950s-era computers and traveling. “After wasting three years of my life, I tried to enroll as an undergrad at Northwestern, but they wouldn’t accept me because I didn’t have a high school diploma. What changed my life was the open-mindedness and flexibility of the dean of Northwestern’s graduate school, a Shakespeare scholar named Moody Prior. After examining me about my background, he allowed me to enroll in the mathematics Ph.D. program. When I finished, I dedicated my dissertation to him.” 

So, our Provost has neither a high school diploma nor a college degree, yet managed to earn a Ph.D. from Northwestern, and live a fulfilling, successful life in academia.  And it’s because, at least in part (and despite the convention of the day), someone recognized talent without relying on the standard measures of accomplishment we use in education.

It reminded me that this is exactly why we decided to pursue our test-optional policy: To find bright, capable students who can succeed if we only look beyond the measures we’ve always been asked to consider.  And we hope our message encourages students to understand that they have a chance.

It’s unlikely, of course, that we’ll uncover many Helmut Epps out there; stories like this are pretty rare.  And if you’ve met the man, you believe he would have been successful at whatever he tried.

But who knows?  We’ll keep looking.

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