Will the pandemic change the way colleges select their students? Can colleges utilize the crisis as an opportunity to make college admissions simpler, more equitable, and more aligned with college missions?
Don’t hold your breath. There is broad agreement that the process could be improved, but such recommendations have been on the table for a number of years. Many of them conflict with the plans some institutions have for success — or simply for survival.
First, keep in mind that the higher education landscape is not uniform. Phil Ballinger, who headed admissions at the University of Washington for 17 years, points out that when major media write about “higher education” they often do it from the perspective of highly selective institutions – the Ivies and a thin slice of small, exclusive liberal arts schools. He points out that together these institutions educate less than 5 percent of college students. Yet media generalize from how these schools work to the other 95 percent, most of which have policies and priorities that are very different.
Even so, some big changes are coming. The entire industry will be shaken by the merger or bankruptcy of many smaller private institutions with puny endowments and middling reputations. Well before Covid-19, reports warned that many of those institutions might well disappear in the coming decade. Administrators at these schools confront a lose-lose situation this pandemic fall: Open up in-person instruction and run the risk of widespread Covid infection; or make classes remote-first and face a large number of student deferrals or outright withdrawals; or both eventualities at nearly the same time. For schools with a small operating margin there is no easy way out.
Another overdue change could be the decline in standardized testing. The UW has already dropped SAT requirements, and other institutions are moving in this direction. One approach is to make these tests optional. “This could well have the effect of amplifying that portion of admissions,” Ballinger warns, by essentially providing a bonus for students who do well – since they are the only ones who are likely to report their scores – and thereby raising the academic profile of those institutions in a manner that could best be described as underhanded.
Ballinger also worries that a few years from now the pendulum on testing could well swing in the other direction. “We’re going to see a ton of pressure on GPA and course selection. We already know that there’s a huge variance from high school to high school in grading,” which makes the playing field bumpy. The UW, drawing most of its undergraduates from Washington, has extensive data on individual state high schools and can take that variance in grading into consideration, something that the “elite” institutions can’t match. For them, comparing students with different backgrounds from all over the country could become an even more daunting task without test scores.
Ballinger remains a cautious defender of standardized tests. “These aren’t the same tests that you and I took decades ago. At the UW we were able to look at the scores within various population groups and I’ve never seen results that suggested the tests are discriminatory. But there is a strong anti-testing movement across the country, so testing is going to diminish.”
Still, the movement to drop testing will have holdouts. “I expect some schools will require scores because the numbers enhance the school’s reputation. The Ivies will likely be among the last to drop them.”
Another space on college applications that will shrink in the near term is extracurricular activities. “Universities that put a lot of focus on this [highly selective privates] are facing a serious challenge. Maybe they’ll put more emphasis on written statements. It will be fascinating to see what they do to determine differences among applicants who academically are equal.”
Those selective universities, Ballinger says, already “fine tune” their admissions “to meet their own needs” – which could mean accepting a certain quantity of those demonstrating leadership qualities, a particular dedication to service, or achievement in a particular field including the arts and athletics. (Hey, we’re short an attackman for lacrosse, and we need a trombone in the marching band.) Some also use evidence of activities as a way to diversify the student population.
For most other schools extracurriculars are used as a generally reliable indicator of a student’s likelihood to complete the degree. “Individual cases obviously will vary,” Ballinger says, “but overall, students who have participated regularly in school-centered activities are more likely to be persistent” in pursuing academic goals.
Ballinger advocates for admissions policies that reflect a school’s publicly articulated values. What really matters to an institution, its mission, should be the core of its admission policy. For example, the UW, as a public state university, should broadly reflect the composition of the state of Washington, which was a goal during Ballinger’s tenure and continues to be so.
But when highly selective institutions employ “legacy admissions,” (sons and daughters of alumni/ae) or give preference to students who could fill out the roster of the lacrosse team, they are using criteria that none of them would likely want to defend publicly as a core value. Ballinger believes the pandemic could offer these schools an opportunity to bring their actual admissions policies more in line with what they proclaim are their real values.
Weighty reports from the past several years suggest colleges could increase equity and access for disadvantaged students. Another correction would be to use the admission process to assign greater value to student activities that strengthen their communities in a variety of ways, as opposed to looking at extracurriculars as activities to be stockpiled like merit badges. But universities, facing unprecedented budget shortfalls and a rapidly changing environment, may not want to inject more uncertainty into the system.
While highly selective universities represent a small slice of higher education, they do exercise outsized influence throughout society. The idea of elite institutions drawing the bulk of their students from highly privileged backgrounds and for reasons unrelated to their stated values may be increasingly hard to defend. Or not. The big question is whether future generations of parents and children will turn away from those selective institutions that offer potential advantages to those who are admitted, while operating an admissions system that is at odds with equity and social justice.
Institutional change comes slowly, very slowly, unless there is pressure from the outside. That will take more than a pandemic.