Holistic Admissions Review

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Crafting a Diverse Community That Enhances Education

Most small colleges, along with selective colleges — those that accept less than half of all students who apply — rely on a holistic admissions process to create a diverse student body, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling. And as greater scrutiny is being placed on the college admissions process in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s narrow decision in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, more and more higher education institutions are considering less controversial, more comprehensive approaches to ensure student diversity.

A holistic process evaluates each application for more than objective information such as GPA, standardized test scores, and the rigor of one’s high school curriculum. Instead, this type of review also examines more subjective areas, such as life experience or creative pursuits, that are designed to promote more diverse student populations. While the holistic process may be largely the same across higher education, the actual weight applied to different factors varies from institution to institution because the demographics of applicants differ from one campus to another.

Susan Schaurer
Susan Schaurer

“Once we’ve determined if an applicant can be academically successful by reviewing GPA, test scores, and rigor of curriculum, we look for evidence of leadership, employment, extracurricular activities, and social commitment or volunteerism,” says Susan Schaurer, assistant vice president of enrollment management and director of admissions at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. “We also consider other factors such as [whether a person is] first-generation, obstacles overcome by the applicant, and contributions [he or she] can make to diversity on our campus.”

[Above: Students at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio]

Diversity at Miami University, Schaurer explains, is not defined solely by race or gender. “We look at race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, geography, lifestyle, worldview, and extenuating circumstances in [applicants’] lives,” she says, adding that these factors are culled from short answers, essays, and letters of recommendation submitted with a student’s application.

But beyond these easily identifiable characteristics, Schaurer says the university also looks for evidence of creativity, curiosity, integrity, altruism, and ambition. “A diverse student population that includes all of these different perspectives and attributes creates a rich and dynamic learning environment,” she says.

Miami University students during class; the university has experienced an increase in student diversity since implementing a holistic admission review process.
Miami University students during class; the university has experienced an increase in student diversity since implementing a holistic admission review process.

Due to its consideration of factors beyond academic achievement and race in admissions, Miami has actually seen an increase in both the number of underrepresented minority students applying and enrolling. Specifically, the number of applications from students of color increased 116 percent between 2009 and 2016. Subsequently, Schaurer says, the university experienced 95 percent growth in minority student enrollment during that time.

“We talk about the holistic review as a way to offer greater access to groups that improve diversity, because diversity benefits everyone,” she says.

When Michele Sandlin, a managing consultant at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, was director of admissions at Oregon State University (OSU) 15 years ago, she implemented a holistic admissions review process. “We were the first large institution to use the process for all undergraduates, but it is now more mainstream,” she says. “We received a mostly positive reaction at first, with a few exceptions.”

Michele Sandlin
Michele Sandlin

Initially, the people who had negative reactions to the process were themselves members of underrepresented groups who believed that their responses to application questions would not actually increase their opportunity for gaining admission. In reality, Sandlin says, the questions and scoring guidelines for answers opened the door wider for these applicants.

She says that while an African American’s life experience is different from that of a person of another race or ethnicity, OSU’s scoring rubric uses the most objective template possible on a subjective interpretation of answers. “At the time, OSU had a number of outreach programs that — along with the holistic admissions process — greatly increased diversity without changing academic requirements,” says Sandlin.

At the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), “institutional fit” — meaning that the student fits the values of the university and that the school fits the needs of the student — is a focus of the university’s holistic review process, which has been in place for 10 years. “We have a ‘maker culture’ that emphasizes putting what you learn in the classroom into practice,” says Katie Mattli, senior admission director at Georgia Tech. “This means we look for students who are engaged and passionate about academics but who also work outside the classroom on their own — or with others — on projects that relate to their academic pursuits.”

Katie Mattli
Katie Mattli

Learning about solutions devised by applicants for community organizations, businesses they have started, contests they have entered, or other ventures outside the classroom comes from reviewing essays and responses to short-answer questions.

“Our goal is twofold: make sure applicants are academically prepared and find students who fit our institution’s culture,” says Mattli. “We have an innovative campus and believe that a diverse student community with different perspectives means that more ideas are brought to the table.”

Georgia Tech has seen positive results since implementing holistic admissions. Between 2010 and 2015, African American enrollment increased from 6.4 to 7 percent, Hispanic enrollment from 5.9 to 7.5 percent, and female enrollment from 31.1 to 35.4 percent.

Of course, student outcomes are the true test of the effectiveness of holistic admissions review.

“Following implementation of a holistic review at OSU, [we conducted] a four-year study on retention and graduation rates of students based on how well they did on the noncognitive variables upon entering the university,” says Sandlin. The noncognitive variables measured by OSU admissions staff included positive self-concept, realistic self-appraisal, leadership experience, demonstrated community service, and ability to set goals.

For the first two years, for every one point higher the freshman class scored on the noncognitive variables, students were in good academic standing and retaining at greater than 10 percent compared with students in classes admitted during years in which the university used a traditional review. After four years, the graduation rate was 15 percent higher, Sandlin says.

Results from a study of students admitted via holistic review at DePaul University in Chicago show that students with a higher noncognitive rating — which was determined using a tool similar to the one used by OSU — were retained at a higher rate compared with students with lower ratings in that area, regardless of their ACT composite score. For example, first-year retention of students with a higher than average ACT and a higher than average noncognitive rating was 91 percent, while the retention rate for students who had high noncognitive scores and lower than average ACT scores was 88 percent. These figures compare with 86 percent for students with higher ACT and lower noncognitive scores and 84 percent for students who ranked lower than average in both categories.

At Georgia Tech, the six-year graduation rate for Hispanic students admitted in 2005 — prior to the university’s implementation of holistic admissions review — was 79.1 percent, which increased to 85.1 percent for students admitted in 2009 using a holistic review. For African American students admitted in 2005, this figure was 60.8 percent — an anomaly, as graduation rates for the previous 10 years ranged from 63.3 to 74.5 percent — which increased to 76.9 percent for the 2009 freshman class.

According to Sandlin, the higher retention and graduation rates at most colleges using holistic admissions cannot be attributed to the admissions process alone. Specifically, she points to departments that are implementing stronger first-year experience programs, early warning and intervention programs designed to help students with academic difficulties, and other initiatives that align student affairs and academic affairs.

Sandlin cites the Bridging Lost Gaps program at Madonna University in Livonia, Mich., as one example of a college program designed to help students who may need additional academic support. It prepares young African American males from the Detroit area to succeed in college and life after graduation by providing academic and social resources along with career development opportunities. According to the university’s website, the program achieved a 78.5 percent retention rate in its first two years, and multiple students made the dean’s list due to their academic success.

Georgia Institute of Technology students participate in an on-campus event.
Georgia Institute of Technology students participate in an on-campus event.

The Dean of Students Division at Georgia Tech offers an array of services, ranging from physical and mental health services to academic tutoring and leadership or involvement opportunities. However, an extra layer of support is provided by the Office of Minority Educational Development (OMED), Mattli says.

“While its programs are open to all students, its goal is to bolster and support underrepresented students on campus with targeted programming,” she says. “OMED hosts specific [initiatives] like Edge — which is a student-to-student mentoring program — as well as academic tutoring, study groups, summer bridge programs for entering freshmen, and Transition Days, which are events designed to acclimate incoming students and introduce [them to] campus resources.”

Georgia Tech’s Women’s Resource Center and active on-campus student organizations — such as the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, National Society of Black Engineers, Women in Engineering, and the Society of Women Engineers — help create smaller communities on campus that are more accessible, explains Mattli.

“As soon as a student is admitted, they receive email invitations and information about these different programs,” she says.

While managing a holistic review process can seem overwhelming at first, once implemented, there are few challenges. In addition to explaining the holistic review process to parents and students, Mattli says the greatest challenge is training staff members on how to review and evaluate essays and short answers.

“It takes time to train staff to feel comfortable making a decision on an application, advocate for students, and work with a committee to make admission decisions,” she says. “The benefit, however, is the ability to intentionally craft a community that helps all students grow. This is especially important at a science and technology school, where students and staff are creating new things. You can’t create in a vacuum, and diverse viewpoints encourage innovation.”

Schaurer agrees, adding that such an opportunity may be missed without a holistic approach.

“The beauty of the holistic admissions process is that you get to know the students and understand what they’ll add to the [campus] community,” she says. “It is similar to constructing the best symphony possible — except we’re not selecting brass, strings, and woodwinds players. We are finding people who have different perspectives, qualities, and unique characteristics who we [may overlook] with a traditional admissions process.”●

Sheryl S. Jackson is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.