Admissions officers at the University of British Columbia medical schools, one of Canada's top medical schools, report increasing pressure from influential parents of applicants to admit them, The Vancouver Sun reported. Quoting from documents the newspaper obtained, the article cited as an example an applicant who ignored repeated e-mail reminders about deadlines for various materials, but who was allowed to file them late -- after an appeal from her well connected father.
A few colleges, the Associated Press reports, have an optional part of undergraduate applications: a letter of recommendation from a parent. Officials say that they get unique details that only a parent might know, and sometimes reflections on a child date back to the time the applicant was in utero.
Following my presentation last year at “The Case for Change in College Admissions” conference at the University of Southern California, a dean from one of America’s most prestigious universities said, "We know the SAT and ACT are not good predictors of college grades, but our faculty resist going test-optional. They are worried about standards."
While the debate over standardized tests and college admissions began 20 years ago, the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the room is faculty complacency and ignorance. Nearly all of the 870 colleges that are test-optional today have gone that way due to leadership from administrators or admissions deans. It’s a harsh reality, but as winners at the testing game many faculty are oblivious to the damage done by a test that is statistically redundant and socially discriminatory. It's time to set the record straight.
Faculty members need to know that college admissions remain more art than science, As documented in my new book, SAT Wars: The Case for Test-Optional College Admissions, our best statistical models predicting first-year college grades explain only about 30 percent of what’s going on, leaving 70 percent of what matters unknown. In those models, the academic variable carrying the most weight is always high school grades, while the unique statistical contribution of test scores is marginal: for example, at Johns Hopkins it adds two percentage points; at the University of Georgia one percent; and at DePaul one percent.
In my book, the president emeritus of the University of California Richard Atkinson and Berkeley statistician Saul Geiser stress, "[i]rrespective of the quality or type of school attended, cumulative grade point average (GPA) in academic subjects in high school has proved to be the best overall predictor of student performance in college. This finding has been confirmed in the great majority of ‘predictive-validity’ studies conducted over the years, including studies conducted by the testing agencies themselves."
When not being "truth-optional" in their public relations spin, even the tests’ sponsors concede that the single variable that most highly correlates with college grades is high school grades earned over four years, not test scores derived from four hours of stress on a Saturday morning.
Rather than leveling the playing field, standardized tests such as the SAT and the ACT perpetuate social discrimination in the name of academic selectivity. Whereas high school GPA and class rank do not correlate with family income, the SAT and ACT can’t say that. Defenders of the tests say they are fair and the social disparities expressed in scores sadly reflect the unfairness of life, but the reality is that family income, gender, and race predict test scores more powerfully than test scores predict college grades.
As a result, the tests create a costly, anxiety-ridden and time-consuming distraction from real learning. They undermine the high school curriculum, sending the wrong signal to youth that test prep – which typically costs hundreds, if not thousands of dollars – will get you further than hard work in class. Would standardized testing have such a powerful and distorting impact on the whole of the K-12 experience if the SAT or ACT were not required by colleges for admissions?
Faculty need to know that rather than lowering standards, test-optional admissions raise them, and there’s new data to prove it. Wake Forest University went test-optional three years ago, and since then we’ve seen first-year students from the top 10 percent of their high school class jump from 65 percent in 2008 to 83 percent this year. Pell Grant recipients have doubled. Our student body is more racially and socioeconomically diverse than ever before. Library usage is up, and classroom discussions are reportedly livelier than before.
It's just as Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade predicts in SAT Wars: going test-optional increases the social diversity and academic strength of students at private colleges, and being “don’t ask, don’t tell” at public universities does the same. We expect to see universities that drop the requirement, including most recently Clark University and DePaul University, rewarded with stronger and more diverse applicant pools in the near future. Test-optional enriches the campus experience. So what would it take to end this farce?
Charles Murray, a contributor to SAT Wars, believes that action by top colleges such as Harvard or Stanford would push us past the tipping point. "If just those two schools took such a step, many other schools would follow suit immediately, and the rest within a few years." He adds, "Admissions officers at elite schools are already familiar with the statistical story … They know that dropping the SAT would not hinder their selection decisions."
The aforementioned dean asked me to send a copy of SAT Wars for an overdue discussion amongst faculty at that prominent institution. With data from Wake Forest and other schools that have removed the requirement on the table, it’s time for professors at America’s most prestigious colleges to set the myths aside and take their position of academic leadership seriously. It’s time to do your own research, hold a discussion, contribute to the national debate, and vote. Don’t be part of the problem when you hold the solution in your hands.
U.S. News & World Report plans to collect and publish new data on colleges in next year's rankings, but will not use the additional data in the methodology for total scores. The new data will cover differential graduation rates based on income and race; the affordability of colleges; and colleges' Internet connectivity. Details are available on the blog of Robert Morse, who leads the rankings effort.
Is there a college president out there who truly believes current ranking schemes are properly serving the educational needs of students and the espoused values of institutions? Are there presidents who think their institutions have benefited from using deep discounting to achieve status and rank? Is the mission of colleges to maximize net revenue, rank, status and prestige, or to provide quality educational opportunities to those who can benefit from the experience? Do our admission practices reflect and encourage the kinds of values and traits that educators are entrusted to foster in students?
Questions such as these have emerged from the research of dedicated educators and scholars and in reaction to recent reports of colleges falsifying data in order to improve rank. But while the consideration of such questions may encourage moral reasoning among college presidents, it does not necessarily lead them to act accordingly.
My own limited experiment in trying to foster movement beyond the pernicious influence of commercial rankings suggests that college presidents may act more responsibly if there is perceived opportunity in doing so, and that such courageous actions can make a difference.
Where one stands on this issue, however, is often influenced by where one sits – particularly with respect to the rankings. When news spread that a group of colleges had signed a letter pledging to boycott U.S. News & World Report college rankings, I received calls from two presidents at highly selective colleges saying they wanted to sign the letter but feared their trustees would not go along. Two Ivy League college officials also reported that while their presidents were reluctant to sign ultimatums, they agreed with the letter’s sentiments and would abide by its prescriptions by not cooperating with U.S. News.
Recent circumstances indicate that the U.S. News rankings enterprise is struggling, and it is increasingly relying on colleges to prop it up. The precipitous drop in reputational survey response among colleges has contributed to increasing skepticism about the rankings; the proliferation of other ranking schemes seems to be diluting the importance of any one; decreasing interest in rankings among parents and students affect magazine sales and website traffic. But there is money to be made from colleges using the U.S. News brand to advertise their rank! Troublingly, more than 70 percent of college admission representatives recently surveyed reported that their colleges use their U.S. News rank for marketing purposes despite an 80 percent agreement that rankings are misleading! Colleges that have instead decided to say no to U.S. News report that taking the educational high road is improving their educational stature: their stance on the rankings matters more than their standing in the rankings.
So, there is a different and encouraging narrative -- one supported by foundations, colleges and organizations. This path provides alternatives to the alarming reports of questionable behavior and poor educational returns associated with driving under the influence of the rankings. Here is a significant opportunity for college presidents to demonstrate the kind of leadership many colleges purport to instill in their students.
Below is a list of things college presidents can do to help steer our country to a better understanding and demonstration of educational quality than that represented by rankings.
Join other college leaders by pledging to sign the letter that first circulated a few years ago.
Agree to follow the actions prescribed in the letter: Do not complete reputation surveys, and do not use rank to promote your institution.
Help your trustees consider the educational impact of commercial rankings and the leadership opportunities for your institution to move beyond the influence of rankings.
Participate in evolving collaborative efforts to identify and deliver meaningful college information and helpful college selection guidance.
Someone once said, 'If we can’t trust our college and university leaders to do the right thing, then who can we trust?" A good friend once said, “Education is the crucible of hope.” The high level of public cynicism about higher education can and should be addressed by college presidents acting together to move beyond the influence of commercial rankings. Here is an opportunity for college presidents to demonstrate the kind of leadership many colleges purport to instill in their students.
Private admissions counselors -- who work directly for applicants and their families -- are commonly associated with students finishing high school. But The New York Times reported that many counselors are seeing increased use (and are reaching out to) adults thinking about continuing their educations. Adults who worry about getting into the best program and may not have access to a high school counselor are interested in the one-on-one help available.
An alumna's letter in the Smith College student newspaper, The Sophian, angered many on the campus last week. The letter writer -- noting Smith's progress in recent years at recruiting low-income, minority and international students -- questioned whether the institution has become "a safety school" as a result. "The people who are attending Smith these days are A) lesbians or B) international students who get financial aid or C) low-income women of color who are the first generation in their family to go to college and will go to any school that gives them enough money.... or D) white heterosexual girls who can't get into Ivy League schools." The letter also questioned Smith's policy of not requiring SAT scores.
Many students and alumni responded with outrage. On Friday, Smith's president, Carol T. Christ, issued an open letter to respond to the alumna's letter. "The letter writer is ignorant about a number of issues. Admission to Smith is far more competitive now than it was in the 1980s, when the letter writer attended Smith," Christ wrote. "We now have the highest number of applicants and the lowest admit rate in our history. The most competitively admitted students at Smith are international students on financial aid; only 10 percent of applicants are admitted. The strongest and most consistent correlation with SAT scores is family income. Most students do submit scores and we, of course, submit them to all of the data-collecting organizations in which we participate, including U.S. News & World Report."
The Chicago Tribune published new details this weekend on the admissions scandal in which politicians pressured the University of Illinois to admit politically connected applicants to various programs. The Tribune exposed the "clout" system in 2009, but has been fighting for information on who actually benefited. The new article details the politicians involved (a bipartisan group) and details the number of requests made and how successful their beneficiaries were (generally more successful than most applicants). In many cases, the applicants had family or other ties to individuals or groups who were major donors to the politicians' campaigns.