2016 Survey of Admissions Directors – Insights

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A few important, key insights from the 2016 Inside Higher Ed Survey of College and University Admissions Directors. Read all of the notes on key themes in the full article by Scott Jaschik on Inside Higher Ed here.

A New Application

A year ago, the big buzz at the NACAC annual meeting was the announcement of the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success, a group of elite public and private colleges that aimed to make the application process more personal, more open to the needs of individual students and colleges and more educational. At the NACAC meeting, coalition members heard plenty of skepticism and vowed to explain in the months ahead just what their effort entailed and why it would help colleges and students.

To judge from the Inside Higher Ed survey, the coalition still has a lot of work to do. Among the findings:

  • Only 29 percent of admissions directors agree or strongly agree that the Common Application needs to have more competition, compared to 49 percent who disagree or strongly disagree. This finding suggests that the Common Application has repaired much of the damage from its technology meltdown two years ago that left many colleges frustrated to be stuck without what they considered viable alternatives to the Common App.
  • Only 23 percent of admissions directors agree or strongly agree that the “digital locker” — an online tool the coalition is creating to let high school students save materials throughout their high school careers — is a good way to prepare for college and the admissions process. Thirty-eight percent disagree or strongly disagree.
  • Only 8 percent of admissions directors agree or strongly agree that the coalition has done a good job of explaining its process to colleges and their applicants — compared to 68 percent who disagree or strongly disagree.
  • And only 15 percent of admissions directors agree or strongly agree that the coalition application would encourage more applications from minority and disadvantaged applicants (a rationale offered by many coalition supporters). Fifty-seven percent disagree or strongly disagree.

Annie Reznik, executive director of the coalition, said she wasn’t surprised by some of the negative reactions, even if she thought they might not reflect the work the group has been doing. “Any new initiative brings hesitancy and skepticism,” she said via email.

And much of the initial public discussion, she said, didn’t focus on efforts by member colleges to increase outreach to disadvantaged students. Numerous efforts have been started in recent months by the group and by its member colleges to increase college awareness in low-income areas and to talk to more students about the importance of college. In time, she said, people will see that the coalition is about these efforts, not just the application.

Much has been misunderstood about the locker, she said, but that is proceeding with positive results. “Many individuals external to the coalition have identified additional, excellent uses for this student space,” she said. “Some ideas include: supporting a portfolio grading system using the locker, encouraging students to save pieces from an English class’s personal writing unit in their lockers, collecting letters of recommendation from service work that could be shared with a teacher or counselor, scanning a copy of a student’s hard-earned compliment card for providing great service at work.”

The New SAT

Since Inside Higher Ed‘s 2015 admissions survey, the College Board has started using a new SAT, designed to align itself more closely than the previous version with a college-preparatory high school curriculum. A key feature of the new SAT was to revamp the widely criticized writing test.

The response of admissions directors to these changes appears underwhelming. And the new writing test is not attracting broad support. Nor is ACT’s writing test.

Admissions Directors on the SAT and ACT Writing Tests

Statement Strongly Agree Agree Neutral Disagree Strongly Disagree
The new SAT version represents a significant improvement over the old version. 2% 12% 65% 13% 9%
I expect more colleges to go test optional in the years ahead. 26% 47% 22% 4% 2%
I consider the writing test on the SAT to be a good measure of student writing ability. 0% 19% 44% 21% 16%
I consider the writing test on the ACT to be a good measure of student writing ability. 2% 18% 44% 22% 15%

The expectation that more colleges will go test optional may be of concern to both the College Board and the ACT, although it is important to note that most applicants to most test-optional colleges continue to submit scores.

But the test-optional numbers are growing. Just this week, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a critic of standardized testing, released data showing that half of the colleges on U.S. News & World Report‘s list of the top 100 liberal arts colleges are test optional.

Also this week, ACT released a report questioning the rationale behind colleges going test optional. The report says that these policies are based on false assumptions and that test scores add to the information admissions officers need.

Race and Admissions

The Supreme Court ruled in June that colleges have the right to consider race and ethnicity in admissions (and presumably also in financial aid) in certain circumstances. The ruling came in a challenge to the policies of the University of Texas at Austin in litigation that had been going on for years. The Supreme Court ruling cited the research Texas did over the years to show why it needed to consider race in admissions — and the decision said that colleges need to have conducted such studies to consider race.

The survey results suggest that relatively few colleges have done or plan to do such studies. This may be because many colleges do not consider race in admissions (and aren’t competitive in admissions). But this could make some colleges vulnerable to lawsuits.

Nearly three-fourths (73 percent) of admissions directors said they believed the Supreme Court ruling would preserve the legal right to consider race and ethnicity for the foreseeable future.

But only 13 percent of colleges said they conducted studies similar to those the Supreme Court cited as making the Texas approach legal. And only 24 percent said they planned to either start or continue such studies.

Only 4 percent said they planned to change admissions practices in light of the court’s ruling.

Critics of affirmative action, during the months before the Supreme Court ruled, repeatedly argued that colleges’ current practices have the impact of making it more difficult for Asian-American applicants to win admission.

This year’s survey asked the admissions directors two questions related to that argument. A significant minority indicated that they believe Asian-American applicants are held to a higher standard generally, and that this is the case at their institutions.

Admissions Directors on Asian-American Applicants

Statement Public % Yes Private % Yes
Do you believe that some colleges are holding Asian-American applicants to higher standards? 39% 42%
At your college, do Asian-American applicants who are admitted generally have higher grades and test scores than other applicants? 41% 30%