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Making Holistic Admissions Work

March 2, 2007

In holistic admissions, colleges evaluating applicants replace grids of grades and test scores with more individualized reviews of would-be students. The practice is most commonly associated with liberal arts colleges or with public universities at which affirmative action has been banned.

Oregon State University is in neither category, but over the last six years it has moved to holistic admissions -- with success that is attracting other colleges' attention. The university has managed to use holistic admissions to increase diversity and retention, and to do so without adding lots of admissions staffers. Michele Sandlin, director of admissions at Oregon State, outlined the program Thursday in Boston at the annual meeting of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

Sandlin said that Oregon State used a very traditional approach to admissions prior to going holistic.  Grades in a college preparatory curriculum were the top measure for admission, with standardized test scores factored in, especially for those with lower grades. The university was concerned that as applications increased, it might lose out on the access mission associated with its land grant heritage. Adding to the concern was a university study finding that for Hispanic students, SAT scores were significantly under-predicting academic performance once students enrolled. University leaders wanted more diversity, but didn't want to end up in court with plaintiffs asking why minority students with certain grades or test scores had been admitted.

The system Oregon State devised was based on the work of William E. Sedlacek, a professor of counseling and education at the University of Maryland at College Park and the author of Beyond the Big Test: Noncognitive Assessment in Higher Education. In the book, he argues that the SAT and other tests ignore key measures of whether students will succeed at and contribute to colleges and society. Those factors include leadership skills, community participation, non-traditional learning ability, realistic self-assessment and others.

When Oregon State called other colleges that were experimenting with this approach, it found that almost all of them relied on essays to draw out that information -- and that almost all of them weren't satisfied. Sandlin said that people expressed fears about whether students were writing their own essays and about whether consistent standards were applied to them. They also reported that adding these essays was much more time consuming for the process -- a deal-breaker at Oregon State, which has boasted about evaluating applications in 10-15 days.

From all of those concerns came the Insight Resume, which now counts for roughly 30 percent of the decision on whether to admit a student. Applicants respond to six questions, with only 100 words for each question. The questions are designed to measure non-cognitive qualities and to reward students who bring special experiences to the university -- but to do so in a way that doesn't reward members of any one particular group or encourage students to just pad their list of activities.

For example, students are asked about leadership, and are told to describe specific examples of leadership that they have provided "over time." That last bit -- "over time" -- is critical because the system is designed to reward depth of activity over what Sandlin termed "the laundry list" of activities. Some of the other topics for short answers are special interests, dealing with adversity, responding to discrimination, and setting and achieving goals.

The discrimination question is written to avoid the criticism that such questions attract from some critics of affirmative action: that these questions are just designed to help minority students. At Oregon State, applicants are asked to describe "experiences facing or witnessing discrimination." Scores do not favor those who experience discrimination over those who describe seeing it. The most common responses to the question aren't about race or ethnicity. Sandlin said that most likely response is about witnessing anti-gay bias, followed by issues of size (male applicants writing about being short, female applicants writing about being overweight).

The answers are evaluated blindly -- reviewers do not see the rest of the application or even know the name of the applicant. Gender, race and ethnicity are apparent only if applicants decide to provide the information.

Since the system was started, minority enrollments have gone up -- not an easy thing when you are a public institution in a state not known for its ethnic diversity. Gains have been particularly notable among Latino students, rising to 775 last year, up from 432 a decade earlier.

The real evidence for the program's success, Sandlin said, is in academic performance. Skeptics of holistic admissions tend to assume that it benefits students who are somehow weaker because their traditional measures (SAT scores and grades) may be lower. But Sandlin said that Oregon State has found a direct correlation between higher scores on the Insight Resume and retention rates. Average GPA's are also going up slightly. She said that the qualities being asked about reward determination, hard work, and other qualities that do in fact relate to college success as much as test scores.

Sandlin said that one question she frequently gets on campus is whether the holistic approach ever results in someone being rejected. People assume that those with high grades and test scores still get in, no matter what. To illustrate that this isn't the case, she discussed two cases that raised so many issues that the university consulted lawyers.

In one case, the applicant was in an Aryan group in Idaho. He had high grades and test scores and would have been automatically admitted under the old system. But his answers to the new questions suggested that he might be violent. The university rejected him. In another case, a student with excellent grades and test scores answered the questions in ways that made the reviewers think she was suicidal. After discussing the ethical issues raised, the university felt she might be in sufficient danger that it needed to notify the applicant's school, which in turn notified the applicant's parents. No one except the university had any sense that this young woman was floundering.

She didn't end up enrolling at Oregon State, although she would have been admitted under the old system without anyone knowing of her problems. But she did get help because of the questions Oregon State asked.

 

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