Like an attorney arguing a case, Adrian Rodriguez pitched the applicant to fellow admissions officers seated this month as an internal court of gatekeepers for the University of Maryland. The student came from one of the state's high-powered suburban public high schools. She had strong grades but so-so SAT marks. Rodriguez liked her essay and extracurriculars, and saw a "pretty good upward trend" in performance.
"She's compelling," agreed Michael Nixon, leader of the committee, which granted a rare view inside the inner sanctum of U-Md. admissions. "She has a lot of good stuff going on." But another officer, skimming evidence from the file on his laptop, raised objections. He said he worried about the student's class rank and course selection at a school with expansive academic offerings. "Not a lot of rigor," he said.
Debate on the 18-member committee lasted 22 minutes until Nixon called for a vote. Only Rodriguez raised his hand for fall admission to College Park. Others voted to deny. But the applicant was not rejected. The majority chose to offer entry in the spring semester of 2019.
With that verdict, one case was settled among more than 30,000 to be decided by April 1.
The scene gave a glimpse of how a prominent public university strives to fulfill its promise that every prospective student will get a close look, or "holistic review," even in an era of surging applications for College Park and other big state schools nationwide. It also showed the complex and subjective interplay of factors determining who gets in — and who does not.
Were students taking the toughest available courses or coasting? Were they caring for an ill parent at home or holding down a job instead of maxing out on after-school clubs and sports? Would they be the first in the family to go to college or otherwise help diversify the College Park campus?
Questions such as these are aired every year at selective schools everywhere as admissions teams deliberate behind closed doors. Anxious college-bound students can only guess at what gets said about applications they toiled to complete. But U-Md. allowed The Washington Post into the room one afternoon to show how decisions unfold.
"People believe it's really formulaic," said Shannon R. Gundy, U-Md.'s director of undergraduate admissions. "That's just not true."
Across the country, major public universities have been inundated by applications in the past decade. The latest available federal data shows the 50 state flagships received 1.3 million applications in 2016, up 79 percent compared with 10 years earlier. The admissions frenzy intensified as the size of entering classes grew at a far slower pace.
For the University of California at Berkeley, applications for the fall 2016 entering class surpassed 82,000. That total rose 123 percent in a decade. The numbers fed Berkeley's reputation for being extremely selective. Its admission rate fell 10 points, to 17 percent.
Berkeley might seem an outlier because it is known around the world as a leader in public higher education. But applications more than doubled at 14 other state flagships during that decade.
Rising demand from out-of-state students, foreign and domestic, drives much of the growth. Universities often seek out those students because they pay higher tuition, offsetting erosion in state funding for higher education. But in-state students also are drawn to public schools that offer a prestigious degree at a substantial discount. Those from upper-income households who qualify for little or no financial aid at private colleges often find tuition at their state flagship is a relative bargain, saving as much as $40,000 a year.
The application surge strains admission teams.
"We are really pressed," said Philip Ballinger, associate vice provost for enrollment at the University of Washington. In 2006, the university in Seattle received about 16,000 applications, and two-thirds were admitted. Now the applicant pool is about 46,000, and fewer than half of that much larger pool are admitted. Ballinger said UW employs about 60 "readers," including year-round admissions staff as well as graduate students and retired admissions officers who work part-time in the high season. On average, he said, a good reader can rate an application in about seven to eight minutes.
Ballinger said it would be cheaper and more efficient to screen applicants primarily on grade-point averages and test scores — which was, in fact, standard practice at UW until 2006. But he said a by-the-numbers approach would be "totally destructive." To illustrate the point, he posed a rhetorical question: Which applicant is stronger, a student with a 3.8 grade-point average or one with a 3.5?
"Most people will say it depends," Ballinger said. "And that's exactly right."
U -Md. has become much more selective in recent decades as College Park has risen in prestige. A quarter century ago, the university admitted 75 percent of its 14,000 applicants for the fall class. Now it does so for fewer than half of more than 30,000 applicants.
With an admission rate of 48 percent in 2016, U-Md. ranked ninth in selectivity among flagships, just behind the University of Florida (46 percent) and ahead of the University of Connecticut (49 percent). The leaders were UC-Berkeley and the universities of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (27 percent), Michigan (29 percent) and Virginia (30 percent).
Gundy, in her 28th year at U-Md., said competition for College Park has escalated since she arrived. Back then, she said, admissions officers "had really intense conversations about students that had much lower academic profiles."
The average high school GPA of incoming freshmen in 2002 was 3.86, U-Md. reported to a national survey called the Common Data Set. Now, it's 4.20. Gundy acknowledged that grade inflation, an issue for schools everywhere, plays a role. But she said the numbers also show the university is luring stronger students.
How are applicants judged?
The university lists on its website 26 factors it considers, including grades in academic subjects, SAT or ACT scores, community involvement, extracurricular activities, residency status, gender, race and ethnicity. The university says these factors are "flexibly applied," but the most important are course rigor, student performance, academic GPA and test scores. (U-Md. says it does not consider whether applicants have family who are alumni.)
The middle half of SAT scores for those admitted to the latest fall class was 1310 to 1430, and for ACT scores it was 29 to 33. That means a quarter of admitted students scored above those ranges, and a quarter scored below.
Most applications arrive before U-Md.'s Nov. 1 priority deadline, about 25,000 this year. The regular deadline is Jan. 20. In all, the university expects about 34,000 applications for an entering fall 2018 class of about 4,075.
All are filed through an online platform called the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success, which U-Md. is using this year for the first time. (The days of paper filing are long gone.) The applications are randomly distributed among 35 people on the admissions team, including 14 seasonal hires, who read transcripts, essays, teacher letters and other materials.
Typically, these readers make one of three recommendations: fall admission, spring admission or denial. A few spring admits also are wait-listed for fall. More than many selective schools, U-Md. uses spring offers to fill slots on campus that open up midyear. Nixon, associate director of undergraduate admissions, will spot-check the recommendations for consistency.
The files are then grouped by high school for a second review by admissions officers familiar with those schools and regions within the state and beyond. Finally, Gundy and her senior staff review the entire recommended admission pool before releasing priority decisions by Feb. 1. She calls this stage "shaping." Among other things, she must ensure that the university does not make too many or few offers for fall and spring, and that it strikes the right balance between in-state and out-of-state students. Overall, about 70 percent of undergraduates are from Maryland.
Most applications do not get committee scrutiny. But readers seek help with close calls and special circumstances. The Post observed a committee session in early December that reviewed several files, on the condition that names of applicants and identifying details remain confidential. The candidates came from public and private schools, within Maryland and elsewhere.
Nixon led the gathering of 18 officers, including four linked by speakerphone to a nondescript conference room. Some on the team are U-Md. alumni, but several are not. Gundy earned a bachelor's degree at Howard University, Nixon at Gettysburg College. Rodriguez went to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Danielle Audley, a graduate of Salisbury University on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, pushed for an out-of-state applicant with high grades, strong writing skills, and deep community and school involvement. The only question mark appeared to be an ACT score several points below the university's usual range. "She has a stellar rest of her application," Audley said. "I'm a huge fan." The committee shared Audley's enthusiasm, ushering the applicant into the fall class.
None of the decisions The Post observed were denials. The biggest issue in many cases was fall vs. spring, with the seasons used as verbs. "Any folks here want to 'fall' the student?" Nixon asked at one point.
Great test scores are no guarantee of success. On occasion, Gundy said afterward, U-Md. will turn down an applicant with perfect SAT marks. Successful applications will have lots of A's and B's in tough courses and show the student took advantage of what the high school offers. A few C's (or even a lower grade) are not necessarily disqualifying, but they will get discussed.
Race and ethnicity arose at various points as members noted that certain candidates were Latino, Pacific Islander or African American students. That appeared to weigh as a point in their favor. Some states bar their public universities from considering race in admissions. Maryland does not. "We live in a society and a country where race matters," Gundy said afterward. But U-Md. says racial background is just one of many factors in decisions.
Geography within the state is also a consideration. The committee lingered over an application from Western Maryland with a few blemishes on the transcript. It voted to offer that student spring admission.
"We are not the University of Montgomery County, Howard County and Prince George's County," Gundy said, citing population centers with large student pipelines to U-Md. Ensuring access to the flagship from all corners of Maryland is a priority.
So is upward mobility. The committee gave consensus fall approval to an applicant from a public high school in suburban Maryland whose parents had not gone to college. This candidate was multilingual, active in student government and had a distinguished internship. She had strong recommendations and mostly standout grades but a modest SAT score.
"Exactly the kind of student we make an exception for," Nixon said.
One member asked whether the committee should dispatch a "Terp Bus" — a reference to Maryland's mascot, Testudo the terrapin — to deliver the good news in person when decisions are released. At that, the committee adjourned.