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Admissions experts combat low retention rates

2/10/2014

By ELISE REUTER

By ELISE REUTER

KU Statehouse Wire Service

TOPEKA -- Only 53 percent of college freshmen in the United States earn their degrees, according to a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

With national graduation retention rates falling behind other countries, several U.S. schools, including the University of Kansas, have opted to raise admissions standards. The idea is students who performed well in high school are more likely to stick around for the long run.

"It does no good to have an admission policy that allows students to be admitted that have a very low likelihood of ever graduating from the university based on their current level of academic preparation," said Matt Melvin, vice provost for enrollment management at KU.

While admissions officers have chosen to raise the bar, under the argument previous academic success is the best indicator of postsecondary performance, many researchers argue test-based admissions exclude key variables such as "grit."

Nevertheless, at the urging of the Kansas Board of Regents, KU tightened its admissions criteria last spring, raising grade-point average requirements while maintaining the benchmark for test scores. According to the new criteria for fall 2016, a student must earn a 2.5 GPA in the Kansas Qualified Admissions curriculum, along with a minimum overall GPA of 3.0, if a student scores a 24 or above on the ACT. If a student scores between 21 and 24 on the ACT, a 3.5 GPA is required.

While the move is intended to draw well-prepared students to the university, critics question whether the new standards positively will affect graduation rates -- or block potential graduates from attending.

"I wish they didn't treat it as a done deal," said John P. Poggio, KU professor of educational psychology. "It's a policy decision that I don't think has been well enough discussed in the university."

Poggio expressed his concerns to the House and Senate Education Committees last month. He argued the system used to define postsecondary success is ineffective.

"This very low, if not appalling, graduation retention rate is not surprising when admissions is focused only on cognitive indicators," Poggio said.

Unlike the current movement by many universities, Poggio said testing should have a smaller role in admissions. To come to these conclusions, he has conducted years of research testing the relationship between tests, admissions and success. Since joining the KU faculty, Poggio has worked with the Kansas State Department of Education for nearly 30 years constructing state exams. According to his studies, the tests in place are not good predictors of future success.

Poggio said while test administrators might assume a high test score guarantees postsecondary success, research shows motivated, but low-scoring students still are high-achievers in college. The reverse also is true, and equally concerning; a significant number of students test well only to struggle at a university for a variety of reasons.

"College admission tests, other traditional academic indicators such as GPA and state assessment scores only explain 10 (percent) to 30 percent of variance in first-year college GPA," Poggio said.

Poggio and other researchers have searched for additional traits that would factor into success later in life. Examples include the student's interest in school, self-worth, academic confidence and motivation, and what Poggio refers to as "grit" -- or the ability to stick with a difficult task to achieve a long-term goal.

Angela Duckworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, studies how the traits of "grit" and self-control factor into student success. According to her research, self-control is a better measure for students' high school GPA than measured intelligence, which is emphasized in IQ tests and standardized exams. While some students might be "grittier" or more controlled than others, researchers postulate both traits can be cultivated with time and experience.

"Like leadership, most believe grit can be learned," Melvin said. "However, it is difficult to alter behaviors learned over a lifetime. The challenge is largely in getting students to transfer success behaviors learned in one domain to other domains."

For example, a student who is a highly motivated, disciplined athlete might be trained to apply his or her experience to academics.

George Baxter Smith, former KU dean of the School of Education, was wary of selective admissions before they were enacted. In his study "Who Would be Eliminated? A Study of Selective Admission to College," he noted in 1955, when KU was an open admissions university, 205 students who scored below the 50th percentile on standardized exams would not be admitted according to current testing standards.

Of these students, 200 had graduated and moved on to lead successful careers. If they had not been admitted to KU, 40 teachers, 22 engineers, five journalists, seven lawyers, seven doctors, seven pharmacists and 96 graduates from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the School of Business would have been unable to serve the state.

"I loved the old criteria that we had for admission to Kansas colleges in graduating from a Kansas high school," said Rep. Carolyn Bridges, D-Wichita. "As I've said, many of us are late bloomers; a lot of people don't develop that resilience until later. So I'm glad that students had the opportunity to enroll."

Following Poggio's presentation, state legislators opened discussion on ways to apply the "gritty" research. One consideration was to evaluate ways to use non-cognitive tests that would measure a student's abilities outside of the range provided by standardized tests. Other options included placing more weight on students' personal statements and recommendation letters. Poggio also suggested surveying employers on traits they would like to see in graduating students.

"Sometimes we get in our own way here. We want to tie our funding decisions to specific metrics, specific test scores, specific outcomes, and I know there's conversation about increasing the rigor of the benchmarks for acceptance," said Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Johnson County.

Melvin added to retain students, universities must provide the needed support to anchor students to the campus while providing enough activities and opportunities to challenge them.

"One of the truly exciting parts of the business is when a student not just survives, but thrives, due to the fit between the person and the university environment," he said.