Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Assessing the New UW Admissions Criteria

The UW System just announced new standards for admission at campuses across the state. Rather than just considering test scores, class rank, and GPA, the new criteria will attempt to consider the entire applicant.

Some will surely focus on the fact that the new holistic admissions criteria put some weight on such factors as race and income (heck, even the Journal-Sentinel highlighted that in the subtitle of its article). Discrimination, they'll call it.

But this focus misses the overall point of the new standards -- which is that statistical measures alone are too narrow to determine an applicant's ability to succeed in college.

Plus, by taking a holistic approach it acknowledges that diversity isn't just about race or class. According to the JS article, the new criteria will grant favorable consideration for students who demonstrate "community involvement, volunteerism, foreign language study or study abroad, social involvement, diversity in its broadest sense, special talents and abilities, disability status and unique or individual circumstances."

Ultimately, the point of considering diversity in an educational setting is twofold. One, to ensure that the various segments of society have adequate access to higher education. And, two, to help increase the amount of ideas on campus, which comes from having as many unique (but also informed) perspectives as possible.

In the end, however, I think what we'll find is that these new admissions criteria will make little fundamental difference in the make-up of the student bodies on the various UW campuses. There may be some influence around the edges, but the core classes of admitted students will likely remain largely the same.

There is said to be such a thing called "the hidden curriculum" in educational settings. It's the curriculum that isn't written, but is nonetheless imbedded into the culture of a school.

Once students learn how to work the hidden curriculum -- which ranges from good relationships with teachers to engagement in the right extracurricular activities -- they can be successful regardless of their true proficiency in the actual curriculum.

The same is true for the application process. Under the new UW admission criteria, applicants will quickly learn how to diversify their appearance without necessarily diversifying their actual lives.

And those who will be the best at this likely will be the same ones who are the best at gaming the hidden curriculum -- in other words, those same students with the high class rank and GPA.

Nevertheless, holistic assessment is better than what we have now. And change around the edges is surely better than no change at all.

UPDATE: Just to clarify, the new UW admissions criteria apply to undergraduate applications only. Graduate applications are still handled mostly by the individual departments who offer the programs.

In a sense, the new undergrad admission standards are meant to make the undergraduate process more like the current graduate application process, which -- in most instances -- takes an in-depth and holistic approach to assessing applications on a case-by-case basis.

Grad programs naturally take this holistic approach because they need to consider not only who's smart enough, but also who has the overall personality to handle the rigors of grad school and who can add some "intellectual spice" to the reputation of their program. Plus, on a more practical level, there are simply fewer grad applications than undergrad applications, which affords grad programs the luxury of an in-depth review.

Forcing undergrad applications to undertake the same type of review will surely strain the Office of Admissions at our various UW campuses, but it will simultaneously provide for (again, probably just around the edges in the long run) a more diverse and capable incoming class of students.

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