Seeking to raise graduation rates, U. dumps admissions index

Published December 26, 2011 10:05 pm
University officials going to take "holistic" view to predict which students will cross the finish line.
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High school seniors hoping to attend the University of Utah this fall will face fresh admissions criteria under an overhaul designed to ensure freshmen are better prepared for college success.

The U.'s so-called admissions index, a measure that considers only high school GPA and composite ACT scores, is being dumped in favor of a "holistic" look at student accomplishments, according to Mary Parker, the U.'s new associate vice president for enrollment management.

The goal is to admit not only students who have a good chance of graduating, but also those whose abilities aren't reflected in their grades, said Parker, who recently arrived in Utah from Louisiana State University to fill the newly created administrative post.

For applicants who lack stellar numbers, officials will consider the difficulty of high school classes they completed, artistic talents, community service and whether they would be first-generation college students.

The move won praise from a counselor with Rowland Hall, the private Salt Lake City school geared toward college readiness. It brings the U. in line with admission practices at most, if not all, other state flagships and will send a positive message to Utah high schoolers, according to Bruce Hunter.

"It doesn't take [the U.] to a comprehensive review, but it's a step in that direction," Hunter said. "Here's another reason for looking at rigor and honoring kids who are challenging themselves through their senior year."

The admissions overhaul was in the works long before lawmakers chided the U. last month for its relatively low graduation rates. According to a legislative audit, poor preparation among incoming students is a main reason only 58 percent of U. freshmen graduate within six years.

The audit recommended raising admission standards at the U., which the school has been doing in recent years, and at Utah's other selective public schools, Utah State University and Southern Utah University, in the face of increasing application numbers.

"Our goal is not to deny students an opportunity to come here," Parker said. "We don't want to hurt those students by putting them in an environment where they won't be successful."

She hopes a more selective U. will attract more out-of-state students and a greater share of Utah's high achievers. Many head out of state for college, or to Brigham Young University if they are Mormon.

Officials say the time is ripe for raising standards now that the U. has joined a high-profile athletic conference, giving it priceless exposure on the West Coast, and while it's undergoing a major turnover in leadership.

"If we don't do it now, we'll lose the momentum," Parker said.

Raising standards • While U. admission standards have risen in each of the past four years, the profile of every freshman class hasn't changed much. According to data compiled by the U.'s Office of Budget and Institutional Analysis, the average composite ACT score has inched up from 24.1 to 24.4 since 2007. The average GPA has held firm at 3.53.

Standards must be raised in a thoughtful way lest they push down enrollments, which won't help the state reach its goal of having post-secondary degrees in the hands of two-thirds of the workforce by 2020, observers say.

Schools use the admissions index as a shorthand for predicting college success. GPAs give an idea of the effort students make, while ACT scores indicate what they have learned, U. provost David Pershing told lawmakers a few weeks ago when the audit became public. Under this index system, students who have higher GPAs can have lower ACT scores. But if the GPA is low, the ACT score has more weight.

For example, an index score of 90, the threshold USU and SUU have used, correlates with a 3.1 GPA and an ACT composite of 16 at one end of the grid, and a 2.2 GPA and ACT of 25 at the other.

During the 2010-11 school year, the year after SUU notched up its index to 90, the Cedar City school's sophomore retention rate rose four points to 70 percent, according to Stephen Allen, vice president for enrollment management.

"We've taken a really steady and intentional approach," Allen said. "There are students we aren't admitting now that we would have admitted a few years ago. Whenever we deny a student, we try to give a prescription of sorts."

U. officials have found that high GPAs, generally good predictors for college success, sometimes are the result of an easy curriculum that doesn't prepare students.

For the class entering next fall, officials will take a large slice of applicants who fall within a certain window on the new "admission profile." Grades will carry twice the weight of test scores, and applicants must have a minimum GPA of 2.6 and an ACT score of 18.

"We'll see what courses they took, are they [International Baccalaureate], [Advanced Placement] courses? If that student isn't meeting the high end of threshold, maybe they are taking honors courses," Parker said. "Do they have a special talent in music? A wonderful talent that can contribute to the university community? Everything about the student is taken into consideration in deciding whether to admit them."

There is no essay requirement yet, but that doesn't mean applicants can't submit a statement. Parker estimates this qualitative approach will be applied to about 30 percent of undergraduate applicants.

Officials won't identify the precise thresholds above which an applicant will win automatic admission or below which they will be turned away, but students can get a good idea of their chances by looking at the U.'s admission profile, available on the school's website.

"There isn't a magic cut-off number. We want you to apply, and we will look at you holistically," Parker said. "We know we are making changes that have impact on families and high schools. This is phase one."

The next phase will elevate curriculum requirements to align them more closely with the Regents' Scholarship, the state's popular merit-based aid program. Currently the scholarship requires more of students than does the U.'s admissions office.


U. tightens admission policy

University of Utah officials envision a future student body that is larger, better prepared, more diverse, more female, with more Californians, Texans and other non-residents. In an effort to boost completion rates, they will expect more from undergraduate applicants in the coming years. To learn more about getting into the U., visit bit.ly/rQBpcz.

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