Admissions Flexibility

Survey finds modest declines in number of colleges that place great weight on formulaic measures of academic achievement and potential.
October 20, 2009

A new survey suggests modest movement by colleges away from standards that use strict measures of academic performance and potential. Measures of high school grades and test scores remain extremely important for most colleges in the survey, but on a series of criteria from which colleges were asked to name the ones that have "considerable importance," some institutions appear less certain than in the past about such factors. The decline was particularly notable for standardized test scores.

These results come from the 2009 State of College Admission report, issued today by the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Much of the data in the report is based on the admissions class that enrolled in the fall of 2008, and as a result of this time lag, much of the data come before last year's devastating decline in the U.S. economy. As a result, NACAC has already released several surveys this year exploring how colleges have managed an unpredictable admissions year, with many admitting more students, admitting more students through early decision, adding or expanding wait lists, and increasing grant sizes.

Since some of the data in the report being released today may be older than the data released earlier by NACAC, the most valuable figures may be related to long term trends and policies that weren't likely to have shifted dramatically in the last year as colleges fretted more than usual about the size of their incoming classes.

The long term data, as usual, show that while there is some evidence of increased competitiveness to get into college, most colleges aren't that competitive, and all of the hype about low admission rates at a few universities doesn't reflect the institutions that enroll most students.

Using data from the U.S. Department of Education, the report shows that the acceptance rate at four-year colleges has declined from 71.3 percent in 2001 to 66.8 percent in 2007. Further, the data show that while it is true that applications have been going up in recent years, those increases are largely being matched by increases in the number of admissions offers. NACAC's study finds that between 2002 and 2006, the number of applications increased by almost 24 percent, and the number of acceptance letters increased by 20 percent.

One area where change appeared to be taking place in the fall 2008 admissions cycle was the degree to which admissions offices reported placing "considerable importance" on a range of factors that could come into play in admissions decisions. A number of traditional measures of academic skill or potential saw declines in their importance.

Percentage of Colleges Placing 'Considerable Importance' on These Areas

Criteria 2007 2008
Grades in college preparatory courses 80% 75%
Strength of high school curriculum 64% 62%
Admission test scores 59% 54%
Class rank 23% 19%

David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at NACAC, said it was important not to read too much into fluctuations in any one year, but he said that these shifts could be the start of a trend over time. The figure for admissions testing has been between 59 and 61 percent for the previous five years, before dropping to 54 percent.

Hawkins noted that admissions deans would have been filling out their surveys shortly after NACAC released a report calling into question the way many colleges rely on standardized tests -- without much evidence that they are needed -- and said that the decrease for that factor could reflect either colleges' considering the issues in the report or being influenced by the publicity about it.

One part of that discussion has been a commitment by more colleges to focus less on numbers (in tests or elsewhere in student records) and more on an individualized analysis of each applicant, and Hawkins said that this year's figures, if they carry on into future years, could point in that direction.

Some of the declines this year in traditional academic categories are the continuation of long, significant decreases in the emphasis placed on certain factors. For instance, in the early '90s, class rank was found to be of "considerable importance" to 40-plus percent of colleges, more than twice the current level. The decline has taken place as many high schools, particularly those that have many good students, have stopped ranking, saying that it made it too easy for colleges not to take serious looks at some applicants.

A perennial controversy in college admissions concerns how much weight should be given to various personal characteristics, including race and ethnicity. The self-reporting in the NACAC survey suggests that most colleges do not consider race and ethnicity at all, and those that do don't place too much weight on such factors. Further, college are more likely to consider status as a first-generation college student than race and ethnicity.

Student Characteristics Considered (or Not) in Admissions, 2008

Characteristic Considerable Importance Moderate Importance Limited Importance No Importance
Race / ethnicity 6.7% 16.7% 16.1% 60.6%
First-generation status 6.1% 18.5% 23.0% 52.4%
Gender 3.6% 8.2% 16.1% 72.1%
Alumni ties 3.6% 14.8% 32.8% 48.8%
High school attended 3.3% 18.0% 26.7% 52.0%
State or county of residence 1.2% 12.3% 23.2% 63.3%
Ability to pay 2.7% 6.0% 14.7% 76.6%

Within the figures on student characteristics, there were differences by types of institution. Private colleges paid more attention than did public colleges to race/ethnicity, gender, high school attended, alumni ties and ability to pay. Larger colleges and universities were more likely than smaller institutions to consider first-generation status. And more selective institutions rated all of the factors except ability to pay as more significant than did less selective colleges.


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