Automatic Access or Raised Retention?

U. of Kansas says statewide admissions standards hurt retention, but formulas seen as assuring access in line with open admissions legacy.
January 10, 2007

Five years after Kansas abandoned a statewide open admission policy, the University of Kansas is again testing the state's populist tradition by seeking to differentiate its own entry standards from those of the other institutions controlled by the Kansas Board of Regents. University officials argue that the current policy, which guarantees admission to any state university for any student who meets certain minimum quantitative standards, forces it to admit too many students who can't cut it academically. Yet, KU's push for greater discretion in its admissions process is being seen in some quarters as an unwelcome bid for selectivity in a state where that can be a dirty word.

"It’s probably easier for a Kansan to get into the University of Kansas than it would be for a resident of another state to get into a flagship institution. If you’re comparing flagships to flagships, the University of Kansas admission standards are probably more lenient, less strict, less stringent," said Chris Rasmussen, director of policy research for the Midwestern Higher Education Compact, a research-sharing commission for Midwestern states. Kansas' retention and graduation rates, among the lowest in the region, may reflect the relatively low admissions standards at universities statewide, Rasmussen said. But they also represent a chosen philosophy that privileges access: "One way to increase retention is to increase admissions standards. Another would be to beef up the kinds of support services you’re providing. Another would be to work with high schools," said Rasmussen.

Kansas' chosen philosophy to date, he said, is "reflective of a real populist history in Kansas, and a belief that educational opportunity should be available to everyone." Of course, Rasmussen added, that philosophy took root when far fewer students were college-bound.

Before 2001, all Board of Regents-controlled universities in Kansas were open admission, the flagship included. The campaign to first put in place admissions criteria was, it’s fair to say, contentious, and the result -- a single set of “qualified admissions standards” for all of the institutions -- a major change in higher education policy. But now, KU is once again running against Kansas' populist sentiment, arguing that it shouldn’t be subject to the same, bare-minimum benchmarks that automatically qualify students for admission at universities across the state. If KU gets the legislative approval necessary to launch a holistic admissions review process, the words “automatic,” or “guarantee” -- their meanings already diluted by the 2001 shift -- would, for the first time, no longer be part and parcel of the university's admissions lingo.

In Kansas, meeting one of three criteria -- a 2.0 grade point average on a pre-college curriculum, a score of 21 or above on the ACT or a rank in the top third of a high school class -- will qualify a high school student for admission to the regents-controlled universities, “no matter what,” said Richard Lariviere, the provost and executive chancellor at KU (as many as 10 percent of a university’s spots can be reserved for students who don’t meet any of those criteria). In addition to Kansas State, other universities controlled by the regents include Emporia, Fort Hays, Pittsburg and Wichita State Universities (The other public university in the state, Washburn, is locally rather than state-controlled).

“As you can imagine, there’s a great range of missions among all these state institutions,” Lariviere said. “The notion that one standard of admission would fit all of them is probably not accurate. We are seeing this at the University of Kansas manifest itself in our retention rates, which are not where we want them to be.”

The six-year graduation rate at KU in 2004 was 57.4 percent, according to data from the Education Trust, a group that works to close achievement gaps. That compares to 71.2 percent at Indiana University at Bloomington, for instance, and 72.4 percent at the University of Georgia.

Lariviere blames the low retention rates on the fact that too many students are coming in unprepared, and the proposed admissions change is designed to reduce the number of students who come to KU before they're ready. One in five freshmen at KU, he said, do not return sophomore year. “We would like to see a situation eventually in which we are able to look at the entire record of a student and determine whether or not they have the capacity to be successful at a place like KU,” said Lariviere, adding that the low retention rates represent a waste of state resources that could better be spent educating students at more appropriate institutions. The current system, Lariviere said, also rewards students who slack off senior year after they realize they can satisfy the grade point average admissions requirement regardless.

“Under the current admissions regime, we don’t have the ability to say to a student, ‘We think that if you went to a junior college or some other place and buffed up your math and buffed up your writing skills, you’d have the potential to succeed here. We simply have to accept them, and too many people don’t succeed,” Lariviere said.

The proposed shift would unmistakably open the door for greater selectivity at KU – and, as such, is a move that will likely prove a hard ware to sell in a state where access is so prized. There is a strong sense, as one citizen said in response to a “man-on-the-street” Lawrence Journal-World inquiry on the topic back in 2004, that, “Everyone in Kansas should be able to go to a good school, even if they didn’t do well in high school or on entrance exams.”

“We’re one of the last relatively open-access flagships. I don’t think there is a comparable story right now at other flagship institutions,” said Lisa Wolf-Wendel, a professor in KU’s educational leadership and policy studies department. “Other states have recognized the flagship as a different kind of institution. We’re weird in that way.”

“In order for KU to achieve some of its goals, including increased retention, including improved social status among the research universities, if it wants to be in the top 25, if it wants to be thought of in the same breath as Wisconsin and Michigan, we’re going to need more selective admissions,” said Wolf-Wendel.

“If we increase inputs, we’ll increase outputs.”

But Danette Gerald, a senior research associate at Education Trust, argued that boosting retention rates by increasing selectivity is ultimately an inequitable strategy. “Moving from the qualified admissions standards would put them in a place to become more selective, but at what cost?” she asked. “It may have the unintentional effect of keeping the minority and low-income students out.”

“Just taking in more of the top-performing students really isn’t the best solution for getting better graduation rates. It totally doesn’t take into account the responsibility of public institutions, including public flagship institutions, which we argue is to serve the full citizenry of their states.”

Wolf-Wendel, who researches diversity in higher education, argued that the research-oriented flagship university is not the best-suited institution to meet the mission of reaching a state’s underprepared students. She added that any change in standards would need to be done carefully, but that if a change in admissions procedures were done properly, the university would maintain diversity and “could actually improve it.” In fact, the University of Wisconsin System has announced a system-wide initiative, to take effect by fall, to ensure that each of its campuses engages in a comprehensive as opposed to a numbers-based admissions review process, in part to enhance diversity.

The call for comprehensive reviews at all of the Wisconsin campuses will require admissions officials to consider a number of criteria for all students who meet a certain academic requirement -- among them veteran's status, family income, leadership, extracurricular activity participation and race. “The single most common phone call that we get in our admissions offices is from a parent who begins the conversation with, ‘Did you consider ...?’” said David Giroux, executive director of communications and external relations for the UW System. "Average, middle-class families want us to look at their whole child."

But Reginald L. Robinson, president and chief executive officer of the Kansas Board of Regents, cautioned that there’s not a concrete proposal on the table to discuss just yet: KU has only just initiated a conversation with the board, which would have to approve any action before it could be considered by the Kansas Legislature. But, Robinson said, the time is ripe “for the state generally to be reconsidering the approach that it takes to university admissions.”

“It will not be easy,” he said. “KU will have to be really clear and thorough about how they articulate the rationale for the move they want to make. They have to talk about what that means, not just in terms of ‘becoming more selective,’ if it means that at all, but to talk about what it means for the education of students who go to KU and what it means for Kansas.”


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