The Brewing Revolution in College Admissions

Greg Roberts, UVa dean of admission

by James A. Bacon

The traditional criteria for admitting applicants into colleges and universities is under assault. Critics from the left side of the political spectrum have been attacking SAT and ACT scores, originally devised as yardsticks to measure intellectual aptitude, as biased in favor of applicants from upper socio-economic groups. The University of California has committed to phase them out in their application process. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 epidemic has disrupted the administration of Advanced Placement exams, another marker of academic achievement, and the cancellation of classes and widespread shift of high schools to pass/fail grades threatens to render class rankings meaningless.

In the current turmoil, college admissions officers are gravitating toward criteria that will make it easier to do what many really want to do, which is admit more students from under-represented minority groups, specifically African-Americans and Hispanics. Opening avenues of upward social mobility for all segments of American society is a laudatory aim, but the rush to abandon SATs and other measures of aptitude could well backfire.

Among the institutions re-evaluating admissions criteria is the University of Virginia. The challenge, says a Wall Street Journal essay on the revolution in college admissions, is how to make the admissions more “holistic.”

“That’s the million-dollar question,” the essay quotes Greg Roberts, UVa dean of admission, as saying.  “We’ll need to be creative, particularly with 4,000+ prospective applicants for every admission officer per year at UVa. When I started in this profession 30 years ago, we had the opportunity to get to know  many of the applicants personally. I’d like to somehow get back to that type of personal engagement.”

Accomplishing that goal would require bringing more people into the admissions process. “It’s going to take an entire university community effort, with faculty, students and alumni connecting with potential applicants at different times, consistently and frequently an in a variety of ways. I can envision a model at UVA where local alumni clubs around the world play larger roles in the recruitment of students in their communities.”

It is praise-worthy to reach out to under-represented communities with the goal of expanding educational opportunities for those who can benefit from a UVa education. And if that’s all Roberts means, then I take no issue. Indeed, casting a wide net, especially here in Virginia, is something that the state’s flagship university should do.

What concerns me is that the substitution of subjective criteria (impressions made in interviews, for example) for objective criteria (SAT and ACT scores, AP scores) could have pernicious side-effects. A more subjective approach to admissions invariably entails the application of personal biases in admitting students. Once upon a time, in the pre-SAT era, the bias favored white, Christian candidates over blacks and Jews. A half century later, the bias skews against Asians, who are deemed by many to be deficient in “personality,” and for the minorities favored by the progressives inhabiting the higher-ed world, blacks and Hispanics. The data suggest that UVa, among other public Virginia institutions, discriminate against Asian applicants. Asians must have higher test scores than whites, blacks or Hispanics to gain admission.

Here’s the trick: SAT scores are highly predictive of a candidate’s academic success. While intellectual aptitude is no guarantee of success, there is a strong correlation between test scores and college performance. The question then becomes what happens when students are admitted to institutions for which they are not academically prepared? Some can overcome their disadvantages through sheer determination. Others fail. What happens when they can’t keep up? Not only do they suffer blows to their self-confidence, they often drop out saddled with thousands of dollars of student debt.

Black students (and to a lesser extent Hispanic students) borrow more to attend college, are more likely to drop out, and are more likely to fall behind in their student debt payments than other groups. The adverse effect is magnified when late payments and defaults knock down credit scores, making it more expensive to borrow money. Unlike other forms of debt, student loan defaults remain on credit histories forever.

In fairness to UVa, it must be said that minority students have a very high graduation rate, so the dropout/bad debt scenario is a relative rarity among its students. As an elite institution, UVa would have more latitude to indulge the social-justice instincts of its administrators without doing harm to the students it admits based on non-traditional criteria. And it’s not even clear from Roberts’ remarks in the WSJ essay that UVa will abandon the use of SAT and ACT scores.

At present, this is what appears on the UVa admissions FAQ page:

We don’t have a minimum GPA (Grade Point Average). We don’t have a minimum SAT score.

A cumulative GPA only reveals so much; it says little about the difficulty of a student’s course load, or whether a student’s grades have improved over time, or the level of grade inflation (or deflation) in a student’s school.  … Most people who work in admission at highly selective universities believe that standardized testing is a useful but imprecise instrument.

All true. All measurements are to some degree imperfect. No single criteria should be relied upon. But I’m not sure the alternatives are any better. Making the selection process more subjective will allow admissions officers to indulge in the intellectual/ideological fashion of the moment. I will endeavor to track  UVa’s admission policies as they evolve.

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18 responses to “The Brewing Revolution in College Admissions

  1. Our society has gotten away from facts and figures and reasoning, despite claiming to be scientific. The government theme is that we all are the same, with the same abilities — the “equity” movement; therefore, the schools can focus on socialization.

  2. So if you are the parents of a high-achieving student who doesn’t get into UVA, file a lawsuit and get discovery of all the documents and email messages related to the admissions process. Depose those run and operate the admissions process.

    Whining does nothing. 500 lawsuits each year will get the attention of the administration and, maybe, even the GA and Governor.

  3. The SAT was not my forte, and my lower scores dragged me down a bit. I did much much better on ACT but nobody was looking at those up north back then.

    Penn State at the time gave incoming frosh an aptitude test, and also they gave us predicted a future success rating: “C” average for me, but I ended up acing Chem Engr.

  4. Very high SATs and Achievements 1400s. Always nailed the tests. Took the JETS in 8th grade and scored in the 90s except the verbals…

    Alas, but there it all ended. Let’s just say that in high school my girlfriend wasn’t the only one with 34 C’s.

  5. Looking at some of the most successful entrepreneurs in the world and their Collegiate performance!

    Of course, for every one of them, there are thousands who crapped out and should have…

    I’m also forever curious as to what level of College “equivalent” our founding fathers achieved…

    • The correlation between SAT scores and college success seems to be very slight–those with higher SATS do better in college, but not by much. Other studies have shown that high school GPAs are a better indicator. Some people naturally do very well on standardized tests; for others, it is not their strength. As TBill pointed out in his comment above, not so good on the SATs, but great in Chemical Engineering. Luckily, Penn State saw his potential.

      Like Jim, I am generally in favor of a more “holistic” approach to college admissions. It will mean a lot more work for the college admissions folks; no more automatically throwing out an application because the applicant failed to get a minimum SAT score. Also like Jim, I am a little wary of how this might be implemented; we could end up getting even more “legacy” admissions.

      • Dick –

        “The correlation between SAT scores and college success seems to be very slight–those with higher SATS do better in college, but not by much.”

        Dick, what I have read on this subject has uniformity concluded exactly the reverse. That very high SAT scores by far were the best indicators of academic success at a truly elite college. And that putting kids with relatively low SAT scores into a class packed with high SAT scores typically did great harm to the future of the Low SAT student, harm that far too often very adversely affected the future professional success of the low SAT student, who otherwise would achieve greater professional success had he or she attended a less rigorous academic school. There are numerous studies on this. One very well known study confirmed this findings regarding law school admissions Harvard, or Yale, as I recall. Lower LSAT students graduating from less elite law schools did far better professionally than those of equivalent LSATs graduating from elite law schools.

        This is not to say that elite colleges should be allowed to stay purely very high SAT. Only that affirmative action or preference programs have historically done far more harm than good to many of those they intend to help. And it does so on many different levels. For example, it drains away talented kids from the very schools that they can best benefit from, leaving them diversity bare. This applies to all preferences, legacies for another example.

      • College differs from 9-12 by willing participation. Poll high school students and I’ll bet you’ll find the vast majority would rather pull their own teeth than be there… even the high scoring contingent.

        In contrast, the college student wants to be where they are. This eliminates the big difference between achievement and potential.

        In the State system, we might get better results if instead of acceptance, wait listing, and rejection, the State schools accepted their 1st choices, and then work to place the others. You know, maybe a 1st choice Statewide application process.

        Psychologically speaking, instead of receiving a rejection letter from W&M, wouldn’t be great to receive a letter that said, “At this time, W&M has reached its freshman quota, however UVA would like to offer you…”

        • There are no shortage of colleges that will accept you even if you don’t have the best grades so the quest to get into the “branded” ones – those who usually have full-up bricks/mortar campuses and sports programs that offer two things that many want:

          1. – a 4 year on-campus College “experience”, often times what Mom & Dad got. In those families, it’s programmed into the kid
          from the get-go…

          2.- A “diploma” that has higher value in the job market.. they even have rankings for what the “average price” is for like a degree from UVA or Duke, etc…

          These kids often make it – even if they’re not the brightest – they know HOW to navigate to get the degree even if they are not Einsteins.

          The kids that do not start out with Mom/Dad as college grads and usually more tenuous family finances.. there are a number of ways to fail… because the traditional guard rails on not there.

          Higher Ed is not immune to supply/demand…it just appears that way because until now, the truth is that demand strong and higher prices demanded and some of that money plowed right back into things that students and parents wanted… further stoking demand!

          The pandemic has turned that on it’s head like it has a lot of other things – professional sports, cruise ships, conventions, etc…

          But the demand for that name brand degree is still there… they just need to adapt to the new reality.. and my bet is that the bigger, stronger ones will.. and the weaker ones, just like mom/pop businesses will see failures. Some of them, like some small businesses were already headed that way.

  6. Different folks have different potentials… As many K-12 say – “try to help the kid meet their potential” or the Army – “be all you can be”… but like it or not “academics” are the primary metric and even that is not measured in all ways that people can think –

    Unfortunately – Higher Ed is is not personal tutoring.. it’s sorta like the McDonalds of academia as the military is in making soldiers.. not everyone was made to fit in a round peg hole!

    And.. unfortunately also, if you are not a Mensa or other prodigy.. hard work might be required to achieve.

    I’ve heard that if UVA accepts you, that they’d go the extra mile to get yu graduated whereas a lot of other schools -you sink or swim.. there’s plenty more behind you waiting to take your place.

  7. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    Is there a standardized perseverance test yet? That is the true measure for college admissions. SATs, ACTs, and GPAs are all window dressings now. The ultimate test is who can write the check? It doesn’t matter if it is Mom/Dad’s check or Uncle Sam’s check.

  8. There are lots of ways to get a College Education other than the standard on-campus conventional one with full boat financing from mom/dad/uncle Sam.

    So yes.. Perseverance can be found in those who worked their behinds off both academically and occupationally… to take personal responsibility for their education instead of expecting it to be nice little dollops of goodies delivered to them for doing what mommy/daddy wanted.

    And I have to say – if you got that habit in high school – you got coal in the boiler to start with. Too many kids do what pleases mom and dad…. i.e. get good grades and get into college – and they never really have that achievement come from their own initiative… blah blah blah… starting to pompously pontificate here…

  9. Could be worse. Could be France.

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