Applying to college can be nerve-wracking for Utah’s high school seniors, and newly leaked documents suggest the line between admission and denial could be drawn by factors beyond a student’s control — like gender and geography.
Last week, the website MormonLeaks published a series of alleged Brigham Young University enrollment guidelines, including breakdowns of how student applications were scored between 2013 and 2015. In addition to standard factors like GPA and ACT scores, the documents suggest BYU gave favorable weighting to men, East Coast residents and first-generation college students.
BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins declined to comment on whether the documents were authentic. But in an email to The Salt Lake Tribune, Jenkins confirmed that gender was previously a determining factor in student enrollment.
“BYU is constantly revising and updating its admission process. For instance, in the spring of 2015, BYU stopped giving any additional weighting for gender,” Jenkins said. “Other changes have been made throughout the years as well.”
As a private university, there is no law that prohibits consideration of a potential student’s gender, Jenkins said.
And in addition to being legal, the practice of weighting applications based on nonacademic characteristics is relatively common in higher education. A growing number of U.S. schools, both public and private, are moving toward so-called “holistic” admissions policies that direct staff to look beyond traditional metrics before mailing acceptance letters.
In fact, Jenkins said, BYU this year put in place a new admission application that focuses on a holistic view of applicants “and does not use a fixed-point system.”
Admissions criteria are typically divided between so-called “hard factors” — quantifiable metrics like test scores, GPAs and Advanced Placement participation — and “soft factors,” such as extracurricular activities, essays, alumni interviews and, in some cases, gender.
Often GPA and test scores will be combined to produce a number on an admissions matrix, with the additional “soft” factors evaluated to either boost applicants over the cutoff line or trim them from the candidate pool.
But if the MormonLeaks documents are authentic, they suggest BYU’s former process was uniquely mathematical. It applies equations to esoteric student attributes, such as geography (plus 1.5 points if they live east of Colorado), punctuality (plus 1 point if they turn in their application before Dec. 1) and special numerical advantages for students who attended small high schools or whose parents don’t hold college degrees.
Like most college and universities, the documents attributed to BYU show that GPAs and college-readiness scores were the main driving factors of a student’s admittance. Taken together, GPA and ACT accounted for up to 76 points out of 100 total. Gender, by comparison, gave a one-point advantage to male students.
And because first-generation college students are, as a whole, more diverse than students whose parents earned degrees, the 0.5-point to 1.5-point weighting for that group of applicants would correlate with higher enrollment of racial and ethnic minorities and low-income applicants.
“BYU is aware of, and sensitive to, the unique dynamics of first-generation college students,” Jenkins said. “With that said, there are no quotas in BYU's admission process where we attempt to meet a specific ratio or admit a certain demographic.”
Jenkins referred to the Code of Federal Regulations, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex for admissions at institutions of vocational education, professional education, graduate higher education,and public institutions of undergraduate higher education.
The federal restriction does not apply to private undergraduate campuses, or public institutions that are traditionally single gender.
Nationwide, women outnumber men on college and university campuses and make up the majority of enrollment applicants. That trend is expected to grow over the next decade, according to forecasts by the National Center for Education Statistics, and led The Atlantic magazine to describe male students as “the new college minority” in a recent report.
The gender gap is more narrow in the Utah System of Higher Education, which oversees the state’s eight public colleges and universities. But public enrollment has been majority female since 2016, according to USHE data, including 51 percent of students this year.
The purported BYU documents also coincide with a period when the Provo-based university experienced a 10 percent drop in enrollment after changes to the minimum age requirements for missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns and operates BYU.
Jenkins declined to comment on any connection between the gender weighting and the missionary age change.
“In the past, BYU has monitored the balance of male and female students who are admitted,” Jenkins said. “Without going into specifics, there have been various reasons for this.”
Most of Utah’s public campuses are open enrollment, meaning anyone who wishes to enroll is able to after paying tuition and completing admission requirements. Of the state’s three selective-admission campuses, Utah State University and Southern Utah University rely on an index system that bases admittance on the combination of a student’s GPA and ACT score.
The third, the University of Utah, switched to a holistic admissions process in 2012.
“If you strictly look at ACT and GPA, you leave out a large group of students who could still be successful here,” said Mary Parker, associate vice president of enrollment management at the U.
Parker said students who apply to the U. are asked to provide detailed descriptions of their high school experience, including why they took the courses they did and what jobs or familial responsibilities they held outside of school that could have impacted their academic standing.
“We don’t have a magic [index] number,” she said. “That’s why our application is so important for you to answer.”
Parker said the school does not ask about family income, but the application does include questions about race, gender and whether a student’s parents attended college.
“Those are not factors that make or break a decision,” she said. “Those are taken in the context of the holistic review process as we are looking at the student — the whole student — to make that determination.”
The holistic model is less cut and dry than admissions matrices, requiring additional time for staff to review and consider applicants, Parker said. The process is intended to increase access to higher education, she said, by considering students who on paper may have been lacking under the old format.
“What we say to students is that everyone has an opportunity to apply to the University of Utah,” Parker said, “and we’re going to make sure that we really look at if they can be successful.”