When we consider college access for low-income, first-generation and other underrepresented populations, little attention is put on rethinking the metrics considered in the admissions process. Sure, “holistic admissions” gives admissions officers some leeway to look beyond test scores and GPAs, but the needle has not moved for many groups of students.
In fact, African American and Hispanic students are more underrepresented at top colleges than they were 35 years ago, a 2017 New York Times article shows. What’s more, professionals today often use the same formula they did several decades ago to make admissions decisions: test scores and letters of recommendation, which often favor students who are already advantaged. For example, Jon Boeckenstedt, Associate Vice President for Enrollment Management and Marketing at DePaul University, writes in The Washington Post:
“The letter has virtually nothing to do with the student’s performance, and a lot to do with the teacher’s ability to turn a phrase, note interesting character traits, structure a cogent series of paragraphs that tell a story, and even throw in a few instances of discordia concors to show his or her own wit and charm.”
While essays offer students a way to showcase their character and accomplishments, they are typically read in only a few minutes and capped at only 650 words.
As a former college admissions officer, this was very clear to me. Students attending the small prep schools would have glowing recommendations that were full of personal anecdotes, while students attending public schools or charter schools received boilerplate letters. This is no fault of the counselors, as some states have upwards a 700 to 1 student to counselor ratio. However, it certainly did not help the student (which in a comparative process, was a disadvantage).
What if we redesigned the admissions evaluation around these factors and made it more student-centric? The past hundred years has ushered in numerous technologies and research insights that could allow us to move beyond these rather archaic proxies for as we search for potential students.The entire admissions process should not be replaced with an algorithm, but carefully-designed algorithms could absolutely help make the process better for both schools and students.
We know that non-cognitive factors such as growth mindset and grit are stronger predictors of a student’s academic performance, compared with traditional assessments. With rampant grade inflation added to this equation, it becomes difficult to assess individual students in a standardized way. Innovations in assessment technology make it easier than ever to account for these factors in the admissions evaluation process.
Here are a few institutions deploying these innovative technologies (and serve as models for other colleges and universities to consider):
Minerva Schools at KGI has a three part admissions process which includes a proprietary set of “challenges” that are meant to assess a student’s thinking in a validated, structured way. These challenges are available online and can’t easily be “studied” for (unlike standardized tests that students can pay for tutoring and preparation).
Minerva also takes a blind admissions approach by not considering factors such as standardized test scores, financial need, or legacy status. The results are pretty astonishing—according to Minerva Director of Admissions, Neagheen Homaifar, 80 percent of the 2 percent of applicants that Minerva accepts receive need-based financial aid. To put this in context, the average Ivy League institution (which are among the most well-resource schools in the country) award need-based financial aid to just over 50 percent of students.
African Leadership University, dubbed as ‘The Harvard of Africa’ is using Knack, an AI-powered gamified assessment to measure the non-cognitive and cognitive skills for applicants to The Mandela Centennial Scholarship Program (note, I am an employee of Knack). This scholarship program is aimed at supporting Africans from disadvantaged backgrounds. The cognitive and non-cognitive traits that ALU assesses are personalized to their institutional criteria of academic potential,leadership potential, curiosity, passion, drive, and motivation. The gamified assessment allows ALU to assess for these cognitive and non-cognitive skills in a standardized and automated manner.
McMaster University’s Engineering School has partnered with Kira Talent, an assessment platform that allows universities to use on-demand, timed video and timed written assessments in their admissions process. One of the important aspects of Kira’s platform is that multiple individuals are able to assess a video interview, which reduces bias. McMaster noted that grades alone were not the best predictor of student success. Through Kira, the university introduced timed video and timed written questions into their admissions process to measure for soft skills in a scalable way.
It is important to note that these new technologies were introduced to complement the holistic admissions process. The entire admissions process should not be replaced with an algorithm, but carefully-designed algorithms could absolutely help make the process better for both schools and students.
One of the common threads between these examples is that they make data simultaneously standardized across all applicants, but also specific to each institution. Perhaps a first step towards reimagining this process is for college admissions professionals to take a step back and realign their admissions processes with their institutional goals. They may realize that aspects of the admissions process—such as traditional testing—are simply not necessary. The momentum of the test-optional movement shows us that perhaps this is already happening.
As admissions professionals, our slavish devotion to the status quo is negatively impacting the most disadvantaged students in a serious way. This can manifest itself in a variety of ways such as excluding students with low testing from admissions marketing or denying students based off of unfair testing systems. Colleges want to do the right thing, but meaningful progress has simply not been made. Redefining the metrics of admissions assessment is the most direct way to address the issue of inequity in the admissions process. Education still represents one of the greatest equalizers that our society has to offer, and undiscovered talent is a loss for both higher education and society overall.