Many colleges these days are shifting their admissions strategies away from the SAT, arguing that high school grades are the best way to predict college success and that a reliance on standardized testing can limit the diversity of applicants.
Maryland's Towson University is taking a step in the opposite direction. Last year it started a program -- which is growing this year -- to admit some students whose SAT scores are better than the university's average, but whose high school grades are significantly worse. The vast majority of beneficiaries of this program are white males -- and the program is popular at Towson in part because the university is experiencing a significant gender gap. Sixty percent of Towson students are women, and because a few Towson programs have relative parity in enrollments, others are more lopsidedly female.
Towson's program comes at a time that many colleges, fearful of growing gender gaps, are considering affirmative action for men. In March, an opinion piece in The New York Times by an admissions dean at Kenyon College set off a national debate  in admissions circles by acknowledging that many liberal arts colleges accept male applicants with lower grades and test scores than those of comparable female applicants. An article in The Baltimore Sun  recently explored how Towson's program differs from policies used elsewhere and why Towson's program is unlikely to face legal challenges. The key answer is that Towson's program is open to men and women, even if the cohort of people who do well on SAT's but don't earn good grades is dominated by men.
But legal issues aside, there's the question of why one would favor students who are capable but don't earn good grades.
"There are students who got off course in high school," and this is a way to help them, said Deborah J. Leather, associate provost at Towson. She acknowledged that numerous studies have found that the best way to predict college performance is through grades in rigorous college preparatory courses. But Leather said Towson officials thought it was important to look at how students with high SAT scores and lower grades would succeed in college, if given the chance.
The target population for the Academic Special Admit Program consists of those with SAT scores of at least 1200 and grade-point averages in high school of 2.6 to 3.2. By comparison, the average SAT score for Towson students is 1086 and the average GPA is 3.4.
Last year, Towson enrolled 49 students in the program, 40 of whom finished the year. This year, the number is up to 72. Who are the students?
Fifty-six of this year's admits are men. And of the 65 students who identified their race and ethnicity, 56 are white. Leather said that she assumed the program would end up helping students at public high schools, but that a number of private high school students have been admitted this way.
Leather said it was important to evaluate the program in the context that it makes up a small part of Towson's student body -- 1,200 students are in a typical freshman class, and while the new program may increase a bit, the idea is not to take slots away from those who get in with good grades.
Students in the program are provisionally admitted and must do a number of things to stay eligible: Maintain a 2.0 grade point average, attend study halls twice a week, pass a quiz on using the library, and meet with their advisers. "They are getting a lot of TLC," Leather said. "We do a lot of intervention."
With all that extra help, the students' retention rate is slightly below Towson's general rate for freshmen returning for a second year -- which is around 85 percent.
With all the concerns these days about encouraging students in high school to take more rigorous courses, and limited resources to help students who come to college prepared, why would a public university that boasts of its increasing academic quality start a new program for those who are smart enough to do well on the SAT but may not have buckled down in high school? Leather said that some of them may have had personal problems. And she said others may just be figuring out what they want to do in life, or may be more serious now than they were earlier. She acknowledged that adding male students was also a goal, but said that was only part of the larger picture.
She said she didn't think this sent a bad message to high school students. "I would never want the message to be that this is how you are going to do it," she said, noting that most students who earn poor grades in high school don't then go on to do well on the SAT.
The program has caused no controversy at Towson. Timothy Sullivan, an associate professor of economics who is chair of the University Senate, said that professors were consulted as the effort was developed and that they supported it. As a public university serving the Baltimore area, Sullivan said, Towson should be serving all kinds of students, and if male students aren't enrolling, it makes sense for the university to try alternative approaches.
Brian Stelter, a senior who is editor in chief of The Towerlight, the student newspaper, said that he earned a 3.4 GPA in high school and so wouldn't have needed the new program, but he also said he wasn't bothered by it. He said that the gender gap is a big issue for students on the campus, so he's in favor of efforts to do something about it. "If you ask girls on this campus what they think, their top question is: Where are the men?" he said.
Charles Miller, who led the recent review of higher education commissioned by Education Secretary Margaret M. Spellings, has been critical of colleges for not insisting on higher standards in high schools. But he noted that many high schools aren't great, so he said students who do poorly shouldn't be presumed to be at fault. "I don't want to lose these kids, so I like this effort," he said, adding that he was especially impressed with the coaching the students receive once enrolled.
Others said that the Towson program raised issues that need careful consideration.
Kati Haycock is director of the Education Trust, a group that promotes high academic standards and more coordination among all levels of higher education. She said that she supported "any sort of innovation in this area," so she was happy to learn about the Towson program and the plans to study it. "Things like this idea, in a limited and basic way, can be helpful to understanding what really matters and what doesn't," she said. As long as Towson evaluated the project with care -- which officials in fact pledge to do -- it could be a valuable experiment, she said.
However, she noted the danger in this approach.
"If they were seen as saying 'we don't care about high school grades any more and the basic message is 'you don't have to crack a book,' then that wouldn't be a good thing," Haycock said. "They need to have some very serious conversations with school systems."
"Kids are acutely sensitive to the signals higher ed sends," she said. "You wouldn't want the word on the street to be: Don't bother studying as long as you are smart enough on the SAT."
Some said Towson was sending precisely that message.
"This is a classic case of test score misuse," said Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing. "Towson University is relying on the well-known gender bias of the SAT, which underpredicts college performance for females and overpredicts for males, to recruit young men who have failed to compile strong high school records. Towson's message to teenagers is wrong-headed: It's OK to slack off in the classroom, so long as you do well on a four-hour test."