A Radical Plan For A Simplification of the College Admission Process

By Cliff Sjogren
Tuesday, November 25, 2003; 12:00 AM

It is time to simplify the college admission process. In a well-intended albeit futile attempt to be all things to all people, colleges and universities have seriously complicated application procedures for the student, overly burdened high school counselors, and substantially increased the colleges' costs for enrolling freshman classes. Generally, political figures and educators not involved with admissions lack the experiences necessary to determine admissions criteria, processing procedures and standards. Faculty members generally know more about what kind of students are successful in their classrooms. Admission officers generally know what mechanisms to employ to best facilitate the admission and enrollment processes.

Three interests are typically served in any institutional admission policy. Ideally, the order of those interests is first and foremost the student, followed by well-defined societal interests, and ending with the interests of the institution. Regrettably, all too often that order of interests has been reversed to read, 1) the university, 2) society, 3) the student. A number of institutions have created intimidating and overly bureaucratic processes that consist of an application of numerous pages, one, or more essays designed to elicit "politically correct" responses, several letters of recommendation, external tests to be evaluated, all to often by inexperienced readers, anchored by a dizzying array of early decision / early action / early admission schemes ("get commitments before students are prepared to make them!") while raising tuition and fees to pay for increasing institutional administrative costs. It is no wonder that the less sophisticated or less school- or home-motivated students are seeking a more student-friendly enrollment and learning environment, the kind typically found in community colleges or the increasing number of online degree-granting institutions.

Few colleges, I suspect, have validated by research the effectiveness of such commonly used selection criteria as recommendations, essays, the interview, extracurricular activities, and even entrance examinations. We know very little about the reliability of those criteria as college success indicators. Why, then, do we subject applicants to such lengthy, stressful, and costly procedures as we select freshman classes?

It does not have to be this way. Admission practices at many competitive colleges and universities should be revisited and revised. Given reliable information from the high school in a standard format, institutions should be able to implement an admission process that is based on the applicant's previous academic performance, a time-tested concept that will better serve the student, the greater society, and the college. Below are outlined a few current admission practices, some commentary on their purported use, and suggestions for improving the process. Many readers will likely consider these suggestions somewhat radical. Nonetheless if they motivate campus officials to review and justify the reasons for using their current selection criteria, a noble purpose will have been served.

A. IMPLEMENT A "ROLLING ADMISSIONS" application process and eliminate all forms of early admission, early decision, early action, precipice admission, etc. Rolling admission places the student's interest as paramount. The college commits early and the student has until May 1 to make a choice. This procedure worked well at The University of Michigan in earlier years to process the 20,000 freshman applications each fall. Enrollment targets were set for the nine schools and colleges, with in state and out-state targets (different standards) and special consideration for geographic, ethnic, economic, other personal characteristics. We were nearly always within 5 percent of the target in each unit. To manage this process, the office mailed applications to the high schools and prospects in August and began receiving and processing completed applications in September. Students started receiving notifications in October (admit, delay/postpone, or reject.) We projected numbers so that about 65 percent would be either admitted or rejected on first review. All others would be delayed for further information, usually for fall term grades, test scores, audition, portfolio, or interview for special circumstances. All applicants received equal consideration for admission if they applied by Feb. 1. After then, applications would be accepted only if places in the requested unit were available. We began awarding financial aid on April 1 and required a substantial enrollment deposit by the National Candidate's Reply Date, May 1. We created a small "extended wait list" through May with all decisions made by June 1. Thus, because all students had until May 1 to commit to the university, we could assume that they enrolled because they wanted to be at Michigan and were not there because of an October commitment to the college! This process can be accomplished rather easily with well-conceived computer-managed enrollment projection mechanisms. Many colleges are doing it this way. Why don't more (or all) do it?

B. ELIMINATE THE ESSAY as an admission criterion. The essay has outlived its usefulness. It clearly favors applicants from high-income families. It's common knowledge that well educated parents and friends will often assist an applicant with the essay. (I know because I helped my grandson with his essay!) What does that say for the daughter of a laborer who had no college experience or the son of a recently landed immigrant whose parents have yet to learn English? Entrepreneurs found both on the Internet and in communities will write and/or professionally edit essays for applicants for a fee. The range of rates for the "service" seems to be from $10 a page up to $800 for the "complete works." Is it fair? Of course not! To view examples, go to Google and enter "college admission essay." Instead of requiring an essay, invite the applicant to write an optional one-page statement about anything he/she wishes to bring to the reviewers attention.

C. ELIMINATE OR GREATLY REDUCE REQUIRED RECOMMENDATIONS. Counselors spend countless hours preparing letters of recommendations that will probably not influence the decisions for the majority of their applicants. Students with strong grades and test scores will probably be admitted and weak students will likely be rejected regardless of what the counselor or English teacher writes. More importantly, we must not allow a counselor's restrictive work schedule or ability or inability to write an imposing recommendation to significantly influence an admission decision! Quite expectedly, the most positive and lengthy recommendations will be for the best students who will likely be admitted anyway. Rather than preparing long cliché-ridden, template paragraphs extolling the virtues of their applicants, the time would be better used in helping students prepare for college (and life!). Furthermore, recommendations, if considered by the college, tend to favor greatly students from the high-income, more sophisticated high school attendance areas. Instead, why not ask counselors to indicate their opinions on a continuum that ranges from a high to a low probability of the applicant's readiness for the particular college?

D. MODIFY ROLE OF SATS AND ACTS as admission criteria. Require students to take the entrance exam but consider only average and above average scores in the decision. High standardized test scores are unambiguous and may reveal skills not apparent elsewhere while low scores are ambiguous and may result from a multitude of influences (i.e., weak language instruction, from a "non-verbal" home, anxiety, misunderstanding of process, lack of test sophistication or test motivation, lack of a commercial prep course, etc.)

E. PLACE LESS EMPHASIS ON EXTRACURRICULAR ACTIVITIES. I have been asked by prospective students to overlook their lack of participation in school clubs, music and athletics because they had to work to help financially support their families or they had to return home soon after school to tend to a seriously ill family member. Apologies are not necessary! Joining a club or school activity is easy to do and election to a class office is frequently a popularity contest. Rather, students should do something in or out of school that clearly distinguishes them from the ordinary or demonstrates a strength of character.

(For Special Consideration, items F, G, and H below, I suggest that admission be granted if the applicant is "almost" competitive. This would be the "nudge factor" applied by a professional admission person who would assess the individual's unique characteristic(s) and "nudge," in varying amounts, to a more competitive position. These provisions, properly applied, will contribute greatly to the diversity of the student population without compromising the academic integrity of the process. Note: "Academically qualified" means that the applicant is judged capable of acceptable performance. "Competitive" suggests that the number of qualified applicants exceeds the space available, thus creating competition for the limited number of places.)

F. SPECIAL CONSIDERATION -- PERSONAL. Identify applicants who have demonstrated that they confronted and overcame severe handicaps to prepare themselves for the next steps in their education. Examples: severe physical impairment, tragic, abusive or very difficult home environment, somewhat less than favorable learning environments (may be, but not necessarily, students from rural or inner city areas, generally low income neighborhoods, crime infested cities, overseas, etc.) In this category also consider applicants who are 1) first in their family to attend college, 2) from recently landed immigrant families and, 3) from homes where a language other than English is spoken. (Apply "nudge factor" if academically qualified and almost competitive.)

G. SPECIAL CONSIDERATION -- CREATIVITY. Applicants who have distinguished themselves in such areas as theatre, art, writing, debate, athletics, music, unusual community service contribution, special awards for academic achievement, creative non-school activities, etc. (Apply "nudge factor" if academically qualified and almost competitive.)

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