Holistic Admissions Is Just a Start

Higher education needs much more to achieve true diversity, writes Karen Cox.

October 18, 2021
 
Chamberlain University

As our nation’s demographics shift, and gaps in education access and equity are further exposed by the pandemic, institutions of higher education must consider new ways of assessing and supporting student success -- starting, but not ending, with the admissions process.

The decision by certain higher education institutions to drop, for now at least, their reliance on SAT/ACT scores is a positive development that could lead to wider student demographic representation if it’s done as part of a systemic institutional effort. While some studies indicate that test-optional policies open the doors to a more diverse range of students, the overall impact is less clear. As noted in a study published earlier this year, test-optional admissions increased the share of Black, Latino and Native American students by only one percentage point during a 10-year period.

That’s because increasing student diversity is an investment in people and internal organizational cultures that requires looking beyond admissions tests. Our interest in these methodologies is based on our commitment to our own student base, and our long-term analysis into holistic and metrics-based indicators for student success. Sixty-three percent of the more than 11,000 prelicensure bachelor’s of science in nursing students at Chamberlain University -- the largest school of nursing in the country -- identified as coming from racially or ethnically diverse backgrounds.

From our research and experience serving a primarily diverse student population, we have identified approaches that are detailed in a published paper and actionable framework: Social Determinants of Learning. We are sharing this framework with health-care and nursing-focused organizations, and others that recognize the need to make systemic changes to support greater student diversity and success. Some of what we have learned includes:

  • Holistic testing provides broader benchmarks. Rather than rely on the SAT/ACT, which is still the standard for many schools of nursing, it helps to consider other assessment measures. For example, we use the HESI A2 test, which evaluates English and science knowledge, as well as the candidate’s learning style. This provides a broader indicator of both academic and nonacademic factors that impact student success. In addition, we have identified through research which sections of the exam may be particularly helpful to guide these decisions.
  • Taking grit and commitment into consideration. Understanding candidates’ life experiences and individual stories gives admission committees a sense of the applicants’ character and commitment to pursuing their area of academic study. We have also found that drive is something measurable, as was the case in earlier research that identified higher graduation rates for high school students who have grit.
  • Personalized learning plans keep students on track. Students from diverse backgrounds include working adults, some who are facing the day-to-day challenges of raising children as a single parent, others who are first-generation students and those who have inexperience with goal setting or trouble finding a quiet place to study. Personalized learning plans, access to life skills-building workshops, coaching and other resources must not only be available, but promoted and integrated into classroom learning. For example, Chamberlain developed an eight-week program integrated into the prelicensure B.S.N. curriculum to support student psychological health as part of managing stressors, to help manage performance. Based on our findings, more than 60 percent of participating students reported a reduction in stress levels.

Other variations of these approaches are being pursued by schools of nursing, though the American Association of Colleges of Nursing acknowledges that they are in various stages of implementation. At Chamberlain, where prelicensure B.S.N. student diversity numbers are significantly higher than the 36 percent national average, we have been able to systematically assess over time how students learn and respond to positive reinforcement through the Chamberlain Care Student Success model.

As a result, we have developed a matrix tool for admission committees to assess the likelihood each applicant has for success. This includes a weighted standardized score calculated for each applicant, which includes the weighted HESI A2 exam, pre-admission GPA, previous degrees, performance in prerequisite science and nursing courses, and performance in transfer courses. A pre-enrollment student success seminar is recommended for select students. According to a recent analysis, Chamberlain prelicensure bachelor of science in nursing graduates experienced nearly a 13 percent increase in NCLEX pass rates from 2016 to 2020, and in 2020 the rates were above the national average.

With recent reports indicating a significant decrease of students taking the SAT at least once from the high school Class of 2021, higher education institutions have had to reconsider ways to evaluate students in a fair and equitable manner. We are encouraged by the wider attention on how to do so in a way that has wider meaningful impact. Holistic and metrics-based efforts designed to increase student diversity and equity provide valuable lessons for disciplines beyond nursing. They can also help make the case for the wider allocation of support and resources to students from diverse backgrounds, and they offer promising opportunities for wider collaboration and impact. Doing so benefits our wider society as well as the students and the higher education institutions that serve them.

Bio

Karen Cox is president of Chamberlain University.

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