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Trusteeship Magazine

Holistic Admissions: What You Need to Know

By Santa J. Ono
March/April
2016

Diversity is essential for institutional excellence and for meeting future workforce needs.

Achieving diversity has always been difficult for colleges and universities. However, the use of holistic review in admissions is one solution that is supported by evidence and has withstood legal challenges.

Boards can play a pivotal leadership role in the transition to an equitable admissions process. They can catalyze a campus-wide culture change that supports diversity and inclusion, align admissions policies to better meet the institution’s mission, and hold the institution accountable for forward progress.

For the first time in the history of our school at the University of Cincinnati, last fall the entering class had more women than men. Many members of our board of trustees and I can remember the time, decades ago, when men far outnumbered women in medical schools. How can we attain a similar shift, not just with gender, but with ethnic and racial diversity that reflects our nation’s demographics, and not just in one profession but across the board? Why is it essential that we do so and with a sense of urgency? Why is it important for board members at public and private universities and colleges to care about this shift?

Why Admissions Matters

The road to the American dream for many individuals leads through our nation’s colleges and universities. Higher education has long been considered a key driver of socioeconomic mobility and a means for achieving equity in our society. Access to a college degree can mean the difference between joining the middle class and remaining in poverty. As our nation undergoes significant demographic changes, a college or university education will become more important than ever before.

At the same time, access is only half of the equation. As I learned in serving as a board member of the POSSE Foundation (a national college-access and leadership-development program) in Atlanta, to be truly successful and effective, any admissions program focused on diversity must look beyond the institution’s front door (admissions) and make sure that diverse students also reach the back door (graduation). With POSSE, the front and back door are both addressed by recruiting high-school students in “posses.” In addition to financial and academic support, these students enter college together and reach the finish line by providing mutual support, encouragement, and camaraderie during the college years.

Beyond simply improving access and graduation, board members and other institutional leaders must consider whether our graduates are meeting workforce needs. Today, colleges and universities often face criticism for failing to do so. As our postsecondary institutions struggle to evolve in the face of changing labor market demands, we need to think critically about who is best-placed to meet those needs and fulfill our promise to communities. The who includes a diverse student body with the backgrounds, qualities, and skills needed for success in the workforce—a student body that also reflects those communities. Most institutional leaders agree that we cannot excel without diversity. Diversity is not an “addon” that would be nice to have; it is an essential element of our success.

Diverse learning environments help all students thrive, and exposing students to a variety of cultures and perspectives during their education prepares them for an increasingly diverse and globalized work environment. In fields such as healthcare, for example, diversity literally saves lives. Prior research has shown that diversity ensures better access to care, improves the quality of care, and strengthens trust between patients and providers.

As a university president, I am deeply committed to achieving diversity in its broadest sense, encompassing all aspects of human differences, including socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, language, and gender identity. This is a top priority for the University of Cincinnati, our board of trustees, and for me personally. As an institution, we hold ourselves accountable for achieving our goals for diversity; in fact, we are working this year to update our strategic plan for diversity for the next five years. Our board will play a key role in its adoption, making sure university resources are allocated to this plan, and holding us accountable for implementation. Beyond that, our trustees have a responsibility to know how well we are serving the people of our state and the workforce needs of our local economy. We want to make sure that we’re providing access to higher education for talented students regardless of background or financial advantage, and that we’re selecting students who have the skills needed to excel as future professionals and community members.

The university admissions office, of course, is the gatekeeper that determines who gains access to educational opportunities. It wields tremendous power over our prospective students and indirectly shapes the future workforce. Thus, it is crucial that we conduct an equitable, transparent, and mission-based admissions process that will result in the enrollment of a diverse class of students with the attributes needed for success in academia and beyond.

However, in recent years, there has been substantial disagreement among higher education leaders, as well as members of the legal profession and the general public, about how to achieve diversity through the admissions process. A series of high-profile legal challenges—most recently the case of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin now before the Supreme Court for a second time—have forced institutions to rethink how they conduct admissions. Public perceptions of students’ qualifications for admission also have a direct impact on institutional policy, because the decisions of prospective students and their families are influenced by these perceptions. The admissions process always carries some risk for the institution no matter how it is designed, and leaders would be wise to gather evidence and act intentionally when making overall policy changes.

Taking a Closer Look

For all the reasons I’ve cited, board members may want to examine critically their institution’s current admissions processes and consider what changes can be made to ensure equity, increase diversity, and select students who will thrive and contribute to the future workforce. Indeed, they may need to do so once the Supreme Court decides the Fisher case by early summer. Boards are responsible for guiding the institution in pursuit of its mission, and admissions is one vehicle for achieving that mission. The opportunities for increasing institutional excellence are substantial when admissions are done right. However, the stakes are high: One legal challenge could place the college or university in the crosshairs of public opinion.

The most important first step for board members is to evaluate the institution’s current practices and policies to determine alignment with its mission. For example, boards may ask senior leaders to provide answers to the following questions to gain a 30,000-foot picture of the college or university’s approach to admitting students:

  • How effective are current policies, and for whom? There are a wide range of admissions strategies that could be used to identify students who fit the mission. What specifically is the institution doing currently, and have those policies moved the dial toward institutional goals?
  • How well is the institution following current policy? Evidence-based strategies will be of little use if the college or university is not held accountable for adhering to those policies. In particular, aligning admissions practices across colleges and departments and ensuring that admissions officers work together helps improve application of policy.
  • How are practices evaluated? We cannot improve what we cannot measure. Are there systems in place to regularly assess the effectiveness of admissions processes and their alignment with the institution’s mission? If not, leaders should consider what is most important and useful to measure, so that evaluation plans can be implemented to support continuous improvement.
  • How are data from policy evaluations used? If policies are being evaluated but little has changed over time, board members may want to take a closer look at what’s going on and make sure that mechanisms are in place to apply and implement feedback.

Once boards have a clearer picture of what the institution is actually doing, they can begin identifying potential areas for change and strategies for effecting that change. As most board members are well aware, organizational change cannot happen overnight but rather is a continuous process that involves extensive attention to vision, evaluation of evidence, persuasive messaging, and obtaining buy-in and support at all levels. Each institution will necessarily have its own vision for change based on its unique mission and local context. Addressing all of these phases is beyond the scope of this article, and I will turn instead to an emerging, evidence-based solution for achieving greater diversity and meeting community workforce needs through the admissions process.

Holistic Admissions: An Emerging Solution

Holistic admissions is one strategy that an increasing number of colleges and universities are using to achieve needed diversity while remaining within legal boundaries. The term “holistic review” was originally coined by the Supreme Court in Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003 and referred to a “highly individualized review of each applicant’s file, giving serious consideration to the ways an applicant might contribute to a diverse educational environment.” An expanded definition recently published by Urban Universities for HEALTH describes it as “a university admissions strategy that assesses an applicant’s unique experiences alongside traditional measures of academic achievement such as grades and test scores. It is designed to help universities consider a broad range of factors reflecting the applicant’s academic readiness, contribution to the incoming class, and potential for success both in college and later as a professional. Holistic review, when used in combination with a variety of other mission- based practices, constitutes a ‘holistic admission’ process.”

Researchers from the University of Cincinnati, in partnership with the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), USU (Coalition of Urban Serving Universities), and the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), recently completed a large-scale national study on the use and impact of holistic review in the health professions—disciplines in which diversity is urgently needed to meet the needs for health workers in communities and to reduce disparities in care. We wanted to learn more about the practice and evaluate whether or not it was effective.

The researchers surveyed schools of health professions at more than 100 institutions, asking administrators about their current practices and comparing those practices against a theoretical model drawn from the existing literature on holistic review. Schools were also asked to identify whether or not they were using the practice. The researchers wanted to know who was using holistic review, how they were using it, and what the impact has been on student diversity and student performance.

The study found that schools using holistic review experienced an increase in the diversity of the student body, and that the increase was significantly correlated with the number of holistic admission practices in place at the institution. The more practices from the theoretical model in use, the greater the positive impact on student diversity. Traditional measures of student preparedness and performance, such as incoming average GPA and graduation rates, remained unchanged or, in some cases, improved after the adoption of holistic- review practices.

The study also found that schools using holistic review experienced an improved learning environment, including student engagement with the community, teamwork, and openness to new ideas—all of which are important attributes we seek to inculcate in our students. Ninety-one percent of institutions indicated a positive impact. The remainder viewed the impact as neutral or not discernible.

I believe these findings will prove valuable and educational for leaders from all types of institutions. All leaders want to know that interventions are evidence-based and that they accomplish what they are intended to accomplish. Although this study was limited to the health professions, the conclusions have important implications for other disciplines and for undergraduate admissions. The practice of holistic review shows promise for achieving the type of broad diversity that we seek in our student body, without having an adverse impact on the qualifications of students admitted or their success in academia. But perhaps the most important revelation from this study is that best results are achieved with a variety of strategies. The model practices that we assessed are merely a starting point, as institutions have a number of other tactics in their arsenals, such as partnerships with local K–12 schools, diversity training, and summer bridge programs.

Making Admissions Mission-Based

For leaders who are committed to an upgrade of their admissions systems, there are a few major factors to consider. First, a successful holistic admissions process must be narrowly tailored to the institution’s unique mission. Understanding how that mission is operationalized at the point of admissions will help senior leaders identify what needs to change. For example, is your mission primarily to educate future citizens and leaders? If that is the case, then perhaps students should be evaluated for their leadership qualities and evidence of civic engagement. Is your mission to advance research excellence? In addition to academic preparation, admissions might also consider evidence of intellectual curiosity and innovative thinking. What about serving the people of your state? Evaluation of state workforce needs and persistent local challenges may be helpful when developing admissions criteria.

Once the leadership of an institution has established a connection between the university’s mission and the admissions process, this connection can be operationalized in the strategic plan or in a separate mission statement for admissions.

A Broader Culture Change

A transition to holistic, mission-based admissions also involves a culture change. Board and administrative leaders must rethink how they communicate about the institution’s values at various levels of interaction, as it is these values that drive selection of students. Presenting diversity and excellence as a “both and” goal, rather than an “either or” relationship, is an essential first step toward establishing support for a holistic review process. Integrating diversity into vital college or university operations, including the budget, accreditation, and strategic planning, will further advance institutional efforts. If diversity efforts are kept separate from such core functions, people will question the need for them. But if leaders show how diversity is integral to everything the institution does, its essential nature will be clear to everyone.

One of the challenges that board and administrative leaders face when making changes to admissions policies or criteria is the potential for backlash from students who are not admitted, as well as from members of the community and alumni. This is another area where board members can play an important role. When boards communicate unwavering support for the institution’s decisions about its admissions process and are able to easily describe the rationale for various criteria, this helps mitigate backlash. Communication matters, and it’s essential for boards to begin thinking about how they will convey and describe policy changes to the campus community and the public.

Maintaining Consistency and Achieving Buy-In

At most universities, graduate and professional admissions are handled separately from the more centralized undergraduate process. While it makes sense for colleges and departments to establish their own guidelines, criteria, and accountability structures, inconsistencies across the institution have the potential to send a mixed message about what the institution really values in its students. Encouraging alignment of policies institution-wide does not circumvent discipline-specific standards, but rather helps all colleges and departments to maximize their contributions to the college or university’s overall mission.

Board members have the power to encourage harmony in admissions policies across the institution. Certain actions, such as asking colleges and departments to develop a mission statement for admissions that is reflective of the institution’s overall mission, or to consider community and workforce needs when designing criteria, can help facilitate systemic alignment. Although change may be difficult in the short term, in the long term the institution will have a greater chance of achieving its mission and positively impacting the local, national, and global communities in which it is embedded.

Investing in the Future

Implementation of a holistic admissions process requires some commitment across the institution. Two-thirds of the healthprofessions schools we surveyed in our study said that additional resources were needed to carry out a transition to a holistic process. The level of investment required will vary by institution, depending on existing sources of support. Low-cost solutions include diversity training for faculty and staff, as well as participation in holistic review workshops. Reallocating faculty and staff time to allow more activities related to admissions, hiring additional faculty and staff, and increasing student support services and financial aid are more costly. But such interventions ultimately are well worth the expense in light of the new opportunities they create for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to pursue higher education.

Although many institutions have used holistic review in admissions for a decade or more, others are just getting started. If your institution has just begun working on this issue, there are a few immediate first steps that the board can take to jump-start the process.

First, having the board publicly make the case for a more holistic process sets the stage for organizational change and encourages vertical buy-in. The symbiotic relationship between diversity and excellence in higher education is welldocumented, as is the value of better aligning with market demands the fields in which the institution is producing graduates and conducting research. Such actions can help build strong support for making admissions more holistic and responsive to community needs.

Second, institutions should be held accountable for aligning admissions processes with their mission. Board members can ask important questions, such as: Are we looking at the right criteria, given our unique mission and local context, and are we identifying the types of student attributes that truly predict success? Are we creating a learning environment in which all students can flourish, and are we selecting students who will contribute positively to that environment? Finding answers to these questions will help institutional leaders develop a realistic road map for change.

Finally, board members are empowered to carry an agenda of holistic admissions forward over the long term. Continuing to prioritize the development of a diverse student body, with the qualities and skills appropriate to meet workforce needs, will ensure forward motion and sustainable change, especially as budget crises and competing priorities inevitably arise. In addition, it is imperative that colleges and universities articulate how they’ve applied strict scrutiny to their admissions process so that policies will be defensible against criticism and legal challenges. The board cannot be kept in the dark regarding these policies and the evidence behind them; board members must be active and engaged participants in change efforts and deliver consistent messages to the college or university community and external stakeholders.

The transition to a holistic admissions process can be challenging. In particular, the idea that institutions should actively seek students with qualities and skills that match workforce needs is a fairly novel one, and leaders may need to alter how they view the college or university’s role in society. For public institutions, this commitment to the local community is already deeply ingrained. For private institutions, the context is different but the value of a holistic process is the same. The transition to mission-based admissions is a forward-thinking step and a response to the inevitable demographic, social, and economic changes that will continue to occur. By providing active support during this process, board members can help the college or university achieve meaningful and sustainable change, transforming the campus community into one that is more diverse, inclusive, and populated with talented students poised to succeed in the workforce of the future.

Four Core Principles of a Holistic Admissions Process

1. Selection criteria are broad-based, are clearly linked to school mission and goals, and promote diversity as an essential element to achieving institutional excellence.

2. A balance in applicants’ experiences, attributes, and academic metrics:

a. Is used to assess applicants with the intent of creating a richly diverse interview and selection pool and student body;

b. Is applied equitably across the entire candidate pool; and

c. Is grounded in data that provide evidence supporting the use of selection criteria beyond grades and test scores.

3. Admissions staff and committee members give individualized consideration to how each applicant may contribute to the school’s learning environment and to the particular profession, weighing and balancing the range of criteria needed in a class to achieve the outcomes desired by the school.

4. Race and ethnicity may be considered as factors when making admission-related decisions only when such consideration is narrowly tailored to achieve mission-related educational interests and goals associated with student diversity, and when considered as part of a broader mix of factors, which may include personal attributes, experiential factors, demographics, or other considerations.*

*Under federal law, and where permitted by state law. Adapted from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) “Roadmap to Excellence: Key Concepts for Evaluating the Impact of Medical School Holistic Admissions,” 2013.

Holistic Review Practices

Examples of practices health professions schools are using that other institutions might consider include:

  • Developing a mission statement for admissions that includes diversity as a goal;
  • Providing admissions committees with training related to the school’s mission, including achievement of diversity;
  • Including nonacademic criteria as well as academic metrics such as GPA and test scores in the initial screening process;
  • Balancing the weight of both nonacademic and academic criteria during the initial screening process;
  • Adding essay questions to the application for admission that address the school’s mission and goals, including diversity;
  • Evaluating additional criteria related to the school’s mission and goals (e.g., research mission, service mission, regional workforce development, community health, or training teachers for diverse public schools); and
  • Selecting students from a waitlist using characteristics related to the school’s mission or goals.

Note: The practices described here are not a comprehensive list of all possible holistic review practices, nor would it be expected that a college or university would adopt all practices.

Image Credit

MICHAEL MORGENSTERN
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