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Scaring Seniors Straight

October 4, 2006

The problem, as laid out in a series of federal reports and statements by politicians and educators alike in recent years, is clear: Too many high school students are frittering away their senior years, creating what the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education, in its report last month, called a "vast wasteland" at a point that young people should be gearing up for college.

The solution is far less clear. But the University of Washington is trying to combat the problem in its little corner of the world, adopting a policy this year in which it is reviewing the senior year transcripts of all applicants and systematically withdrawing the acceptances of those who seriously flopped or fooled around.

Twenty-three students who had what university officials call "extreme" downturns received letters this summer that said: "After reviewing your final high school transcript through spring term 2006, I am sorry to inform you that your University of Washington Seattle offer of admission for autumn quarter 2006 has been withdrawn.... I regret that we had to take this action and hope you will find an educational alternative that meets your needs."

Another 180 students who suffered "a significant downturn" in their senior year performance were told that the admissions office had "considered withdrawing your admission," but stopped short. The letters added: "We hope that you live up to your academic potential and take full advantage of the many teaching and advising resources at the UW to help you to that end."

Washington's approach is not unique; admissions committees at lots of selective colleges review senior year transcripts and keep their eyes out for students who go into a freefall late in high school. (The University of California at Berkeley, for instance, revoked the admission of slightly more than two dozen students in each of the last two years.) But Philip A. Ballinger, Washington's director of admissions, says he hopes the widespread, aggressive approach taken by the university -- an institution to which "a major proportion of high school students in our state" apply each year -- will have a significant impact in its backyard.

"In this State of Washington, this coming from us will be a fairly direct communication to students here, and I have no doubt that counselors will be using it," says Ballinger, who adds that "high school counselors have been asking us to do this for years."

That wasn't possible, though, until the university, which had previously admitted students based largely on grades and standardized test scores, adopted a new admissions process this year in which admissions officers read each application thoroughly.

After admitting students last spring, based largely on students' high school performance through the junior year, the university reviewed applicants' credentials in late July and early August. Admissions officers looked for three major warning signs, says Ballinger: students who received multiple Cs, Ds and Fs; failed a course required for admission to the university (such as math or foreign language), or said they planned to take challenging senior year courses and then did not, instead "taking introduction to breathing," says Ballinger.

Washington, he says, was "not that tough:" the dropoff had to be "pretty extreme," and students had an appeal process in which they could show that family situations or other issues had contributed to their decline.

Of the nearly two dozen students turned away because of senioritis, Ballinger says only one parent's complaint reached him. "I think in many cases, parents say, 'Yeah, I don't like it, but my son or daughter didn't do diddly in the senior year, so they'll go to another school."

Michael Kirst, a professor of education and business management at Stanford University who has studied the high school/college continuum, says that approaches like the one at Washington does little to attack the real issues in high school performance. "Only a small number of institutions do this, and they are selective," he said in an e-mail. "The bigger problem is with students who were never prepared to begin with and attend nonselective four-year or open enrollment two-year institutions.These institutions comprise 80 percent of postsecondary enrollment. Until we rethink the senior year for them, no systemic change will take place."

Ballinger doesn't dispute Kirst's point, but says he hopes that with the university's wide reach in its state, Washington's new policy will change at least some students' behavior. It is only fair, he says, that students who expend meaningful effort throughout their high school careers should get an edge over those who begin to coast early, and stop striving for excellence.

"Some who was a concert pianist wouldn't take a year off; for a star athlete, taking a year off would be inconceivable," says Ballinger. "If you're expecting to come to a university and do good work, taking the senior year off should be inconceivable, too."

 

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