An Admissions Reformer Takes Stock

William Sedlacek, a pioneer in the use of noncognitive measures for admissions, discusses his new book on the state of the movement.

May 22, 2017

Long before it became common for experts on admissions to advocate that colleges look beyond grades and test scores, William E. Sedlacek was doing so. He promoted the idea of considering noncognitive variables -- creativity, persistence, motivations, ability to overcome adversity and others -- as factors to consider in admissions. And he offered evidence that these variables could identify talent and the ability to succeed in college that might be ignored by more traditional admissions criteria.

In a new book, Sedlacek, professor emeritus of education at the University of Maryland at College Park, outlines the latest research on noncognitive variables and offers resources for admissions professionals and others. The book is Measuring Noncognitive Variables: Improving Admissions, Success and Retention for Underrepresented Students (Stylus). Sedlacek provided answers via email to questions about his book.

Q: You've been working on these issues for a long time. Do you think attitudes are changing broadly or is it still an uphill climb?

A: I think of it long term as a series of peaks and valleys. One reason why change in higher education, and the society as a whole, is difficult is that it takes time and persistence to change a social institution that is well established. I have tried to provide the logic and practical tools to help colleges, universities, scholarship programs and foundations to make changes that are fairer to all students, regardless of their cultural, racial, gender or sexual orientation backgrounds. Also, I have provided these tools at no cost, without legal obligations. People may revise or use part of the measures, and take ownership and credit for their implementation.

Q: To what extent do you view noncognitive measures as additional or as a replacement to traditional measures (grades and test scores)?

A: We do not need to eliminate grades and tests from our admissions systems; we need to add some new measures that expand the range of dimensions we consider. Somewhere in that range is a variable or variables that capture the potential of all comers. I have used the analogy of the multiverse from astronomy; that there are other universes in the Cosmos that are outside our own. In statistics we define a universe as the largest group or domain to which we wish to generalize our results. The idea of the multiverse here is that we need to look to another universe of content to measure variables that are unique to that universe. These other variables may not overlap or share variance with the traditional measures, but may relate to criteria of interest, such as grades, retention or student development.

Q: What did you make of the new plan from elite private schools to kill traditional high school transcripts?

A: Recent literature has shown that grades are becoming increasingly less useful as indicators of student achievement or as predictors of future student success. This is largely due to the statistical artifact that students at all levels of education are being assigned higher grades, particularly at elite private high schools. If we move to another system and evaluate competencies, it is important that the measurement of those concepts is demonstrated. The history of student evaluations is replete with well intended supposed innovations.

Are current students just smarter and/or more accomplished than their predecessors? This seems unlikely, but even if true, it does not help us prepare students for higher education, since grades no longer appear as useful in differentiating levels of student academic achieve­ment as they were once. Several schools among the group of private institutions involved in the plan discussed in the article have employed the noncognitive variables discussed in the system covered in the book. Interestingly, Big Picture charter schools enroll low-income, urban, non-White students and those who speak a first language other than English. They do not assign course grades, but employ a number of methods to assess the noncognitive variables discussed in the book, including setting school goals, and designing teacher training.

Q: What are some of the noncognitive variables that hold the most promise to you as tools for identifying and admitting under-represented students?

A: A number of noncognitive variables have been useful in predicting the success of students of color, international students, LGBTQ students, and women in higher education at a variety of institutions and programs. These include self-concept, realistic self-appraisal, working the system (handling racism), long-term goals, leadership, having a support person and community, and nontraditional learning. These dimensions should be evaluated in the context of the school and/or program where they will be used. Noncognitive variables can be assessed in a number of ways: questionnaires, interviews, essays, portfolios, and reviewing materials not specifically designed to elicit information on noncognitive variables.

The book provides examples of measures and colleges, universities, professional and graduate schools, and secondary school programs that have used noncognitive variables. Additionally, the variables have been supported in a series of legal cases challenging their assumptions, which are discussed in the book.

Q: Many colleges use traditional admissions systems in part because they lack the staff to carefully review every applicant. Can the approaches you discuss work with resource-poor admissions offices?

A: The examples covered in the book provide materials that could be employed in training staff, faculty and students at no cost other than time spent in the training. DeHaemers, & Sandlin (2015) have recommended using the noncognitive system discussed in this book in the Handbook of Strategic Enrollment Management, as part of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) publication series. They stated: “Colleges and universities that have added noncognitive variables to their admissions requirements are finding that these variables are associated with improved outcomes and higher retention, particularly for certain populations. The application of noncognitive variables is allowing for earlier intervention methods…. The end result is stronger preparation, better orientation programs, and mentoring and coaching programs that start on day one.”

AACRAO sponsors a training program on the noncognitive variables for admissions staff and other professionals. Student affairs and multicultural program staff are particularly important in implementing orientation and post enrollment services for students of color. Additionally, they can help inform faculty, administrators, and parents of student needs regarding noncognitive dimensions. Madonna University  has a Bridging Lost Gaps (BLG) program designed to increase recruitment, enrollment, retention, and graduation rates of African-American male students. The following link shows African-American males in this program, in a video produced by them, discussing the value of each of the eight noncognitive variables to them personally.


What Others Are Reading

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • Day
  • Week
  • Month
  • Year
Back to Top