Price of Admission - “Holistic” Admissions, More Hole Than Whole?

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When you realize "holistic" is a buzzword meant to generate revenue, rather than student recognition - my daughter's experience with university admissions

Submitted: May 28, 2017

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Submitted: May 28, 2017

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Today’s universities work incredibly hard to recruit students. They send out glossy brochures to students as early as freshman year of high school, they host on-line and in-person campus tours, they travel from state-to-state hosting informative question and answer events, and they advertise on-line through informative one-stop sites like Niche. The universities cast their nets far and wide to assure they receive windfall application fee revenues while retaining the opportunity to cull the highest quality candidates from the mountain of applications. Nearly all universities now assure the hopeful students that they utilize a “holistic” approach to application review – this invitation encourages students who might reside on the academic fringes and students who demonstrate skills not readily quantified by test score, who probably would not have spent the time or money to apply in the past, to invest the application fee and apply.

Ironically, it is not just the students who are on the margins academically or those whose strengths are less well quantified by test score, who may be misled by the “holistic” message; students who pursue a non-traditional, extremely accelerated academic path can find themselves on the outside looking-in, as well. We have witnessed this, first-hand. When it comes to university admissions, “holistic” does not mean individualized, nor does it mean in-depth. What “holistic” means, with regard to university admissions, is, that the university has a standardized rubric considering some or all of the following points:

Curriculum/related grades
Involvement in outside activities
Character/diversity
Demographic
Academic suitability
Strength of recommendations

This rubric is probably quite effective to stratify the average high school student, of the usual high school age, who is taking expected high school curricula. However, any rubric, applied blindly, seems poorly designed to consider students who fall outside of the average, usual, and expected. In the case of my daughter, this rubric was nearly catastrophic to her future. She is two years younger than her high school peers, yet two years ahead of the majority of them, academically. She was forced to be more mature than most, as well; with both parents working full-time outside of the home, and two siblings, one of whom is severely disabled, she was left to find her own way to classes over 40 miles away from home, to negotiate with college professors and administration, and to master college material with no support system. Her drive to succeed was the only reason she accomplished so much in four short years.

My daughter attained her Associate degree before the end of fall term in her senior year of high school, at age 15. She graduates from the local public high school with a 4.19 weighted GPA, She scored a 31 on the only ACT she attempted, spring of her junior year (33 in science and 33 in math). In addition, she is recognized as a member of the following:

National Honor Society
Mu Alpha Theta Mathematics Honor Society
EFSC Dean’s List
Tri-M Music Honor Society
International Thespian Society

She also received the following recognition, while in high school:

Robert Goddard Award - Cadet Chief Master Sergeant, Civil Air Patrol (eighth promotion in three years)
Co-Chairman for the City of Titusville Student Advisory Council
Six Varsity Letters (Diving, Marching Band)
Titusville High School Athletic Director’s Scholar Athlete Scholar Award
Principal bassoonist, most elite h.s. band (three years/invitation-only, no h.s. credit/7AM every day)
Consul for the Latin Club
Section Leader, Marching Band
Superior Music Performance Assessments (four years)
Roles in Musical Theater performances (three years)

Not awarded nor recognized, but notable none-the-less, is the fact she has been a volunteer peer mentor for band and math/chemistry, she has put in well over 200 hours at a horse rescue/therapeutic horseback riding program, and works with her sister, who has severe autism, on a daily basis.

She undertook extensive STEM curricula at the local college, so credit-wise she will be a junior in Biochemistry as she enters university, fall 2017.

With this resume, she felt she would be a strong contender in all matrix categories. She applied to an Ivy League university for Early Decision, fall 2016, with high hopes that her hard work would be recognized and her dreams of attending an Ivy League school coming to fruition. She also applied to a State school as her “safety.”

The shock of rejection was jarring, as not just the Ivy League dream school, but also the “safety” school declined to accept her as an Early Decision student. The rejection from the Ivy League school offered no reasoned explanation or opportunity to inquire. However, the “safety” school did offer a second-look, in the spring admission cycle, as long as she submitted her fall term grades. This brought her up short, WHY would the university have concern regarding her grades? She was Honor Society material, Dean’s List material, a student with above a 4.0 weighted GPA! The warm and fuzzy “holistic” review suddenly seemed less than advertised.

What she learned, upon inquiring is that, while universities stress that they seek students who are “challenging” themselves with a rigorous course load, they really mean that they seek students who only challenge themselves to the level where they can remain perfect “A” students. They do not discriminate between a student who has completed an Associate degree or one who has never taken a single post-secondary (or equivalent) class; as a matter of fact, it seems a college-level Calculus III class has the no more weight in the “holistic” review, than a high school-level College Algebra class. And, should the student reach too high and fall short on a single, non-core, elective, college class, as they seek to identify their best-fit career path, resulting in a “D” letter grade from the college, this could entirely foreclose acceptance into a university. 

This is what happened to my daughter. She enrolled in an exploratory class in the engineering field, Survey for Green Design, when she was 13, over the summer after her sophomore year of high school and received a “D” – the class was so poorly taught, both the curriculum and the instructor were then pulled from the college’s catalog. The letter grade will remain on her transcript, as there is no opportunity to re-take and replace with an improved grade. This “D,” earned over a year and a half prior to the decisions from the two universities, though of no relevance to her chosen career path in Biochemistry, nor material to her high school graduation requirements, probably slammed the Ivy League door closed. It nearly closed the door to university, entirely. “Holistic,” apparently, does not mean in-depth, thoughtful, or curious. If it did, maybe the birth month and year at the top of her college transcript, July 2001, subtracted from the start of that fateful term, May 2015 would have intrigued a human reviewer to ponder the human potential of a 13 year old college sophomore who set her bar for achievement so much higher than any other student her age?

“Holistic” also does not seem to consider the facts available on the college transcript, which demonstrated all “A” and “B” letter grades in Calculus, Chemistry, Physics, and Biology, since that one, fateful, grade was earned. Thus, she was deferred by her “safety” school, pending grades from fall term. I guess she should be grateful – her “safety” school could have chosen to slam the door, as well. We were told, after she was admitted, by an Admissions team member, “An earned ‘D’ is an earned ‘D.’ It does not matter what class, nor if it is in high school or college. It does not matter if it is a core class or an elective. We usually don’t accept ‘D’ students. She is just lucky to have been admitted at all.” It is especially lucky that her “safety” school admitted her, because, four other universities (some with a much lower bar than her Ivy League dream school) declined to welcome her as a student.

In trying to better understand how the promising path she had pursued for four years had come to such an unexpected and abrupt halt, she discovered that her high school class rank and unweighted GPA were significantly impaired by her choice to reach so far ahead. Where she achieved “B” letter grade in high-level, post-secondary math or science classes, this caused her class rank and unweighted GPA to plummet below those of a typical high school student receiving “A” letter grades in introductory-level high school math and science classes. This was a frustrating life-lesson for my daughter and many of her peers, who had to settle for being in the top third of their graduating class, despite having the highest standardized test scores, and graduating with honors for, both, their high school diploma and their Associate degree (in some cases, two Associate degrees). Learning that class rank and unweighted GPA were factored into the “holistic” decision matrix was somewhat sickening for these hard-driving students. While these two factors might add value when comparing regular high school students, taking essentially similar classes, using this to rank students so far beyond the mainstream, and calling the process “holistic,” seems downright evil.

The “holistic” approach is also said to factor-in the complete picture of a given candidate, placing his/her accomplishments into context when considering the family situation, the quality of school the student attends, strength of community support/resource availability, and the student’s apparent interests. This perspective is meant to recognize that students arise from all walks of life, and should lend credence to high-achievers who overcome significant hurdles and succeed beyond what is expected for their ethnicity, race, class, or means. While her household is not situated in Watts, nor is she from Somaliland, I imagine a student, who is too young to drive, managing to navigate to campuses greater than 40 miles apart, pursuing curriculum four years ahead of her age, with virtually no guidance, tutor, or supervision, is, at least, somewhat remarkable? Her family struggles to make ends meet because of the incredible cost of providing care for a severely disabled child; there were no “prep” classes for the standardized exams (something the Somaliland students do receive), there was no Green Dot program to provide specialized college preparation (thank goodness this is now available to denizens of Watts); for my daughter, we are grateful there was a public high school, and the dual-enrollment program in partnership with an accredited college. I cannot fathom how a university can deem any student more or less “diverse” in a quantifiable manner. That said, I imagine there is a limited field of fifteen year old high school graduates who also hold an Associate degree, who are studying to be airplane pilots, have achieved a leadership rank in the Civil Air Patrol, who are rated Superior in their bassoon performance (and also march with flute/piccolo), who have completed all prerequisites for their junior year in Biochemistry; I could be wrong, but it would surprise me.

Another factor that is considered in some university’s “holistic” student analysis is the student’s involvement in extra-curricular activities, especially, the “quality” of the student’s selected activities. Again, I would struggle to quantify the value of a student’s extra-curricular activity – what would have greater value to the university, students who enhance their personal capabilities (knowledge, research, experience), students who seek to improve the world for others (Special Olympics, CP Games, animal rescue), or students who try to fix what is broken (Habitat for Humanity, Blood Drives, Unicef)? What about the students whose only volunteer opportunity is sibling-care or elder-care? Student-athletes who are training early in the morning, late into the night, and all week-end long? This factor seems even more ethereal than the quantification of a student’s contextual picture.

To some degree, universities are forced to consider how well a student will fit into their campus housing, existing academic programs, and extra-curricular offerings, but even more importantly, I imagine a “holistic” view would necessarily consider the return-on-investment that might be gained from the prospective student’s attendance, both during attendance and after graduation. Likely, the university will seek students with character traits that make them moral citizens and ethical students, characteristics that include self-motivation, dedication, drive, and ambition, to assure the students can capably pursue and successfully complete their degree path. Further, they probably seek students with personalities that include traits to facilitate successfully living in a close community, like kindness, tolerance, patience, perseverance, leadership or followership, non-violence, and flexibility. But beyond this, I would bet there is a search for the “star” quality – that shiny something that the university can recognize early and often in newsletters, news articles, video clips, and brochures. Outstanding athletes, straight “A” scholars, strong fellowship candidates, and performers about to step into the limelight are among those I envision are highly sought. There must be a very large proportion of candidates who fit the first two categories, however, what percentage fit the third? I wonder – Biochemistry students begin to participate in meaningful research in their junior year - would a newly-minted 16 year-old, who is academically eligible to participate in medical research, that might change the risk of a disease or create a ground-breaking cure, be news-worthy? Might a 21 year old PhD make headlines? What will her earning potential be, if her drive remains intact? Will she be a large alumna-donor to the university who recognized her accomplishments? Or maybe, this is a negative – is she perceived as too young to participate safely and successfully on-campus?

The final piece of the “holistic” evaluation of applicants is the recommendation letters students must request of their high school teachers and guidance counselor. What strikes me as tragically comical, especially for those students who dual-enrolled at the beginning of their sophomore year and never attended another high school level class, is that the high school teachers and high school guidance counselors, for the most part, know nothing about these students. These teachers and counselors only see the dual-enrolled  students for schedule sign-off or book pick-up (if, then), the high school teachers and guidance counselor are blind to the students’ capability, creativity, intellectual curiosity, participation, drive, promise, and potential; other than seeing the classes the students select and the grades they earn.  These people, who serve between two- and nine-hundred students a day, at our public high school, are expected to have, both, the time to write a thoughtful letter (for each student, and each university to which that student is applying – five, in my daughter’s case, one Common, one Coalition, three for schools which did not accept either standard application) commending the dual-enrolled student they never see, and clearly delineating the student’s potential to make a meaningful contribution to the university’s classes, campus, and reputation? Where the regular high school students, at least, have had four years to build relationships and demonstrate their track-record with the high school teachers and guidance staff, the high-performing, dual-enrolled students had no such opportunity. How heavily these recommendations are weighted it anybody’s guess; however, in my daughter’s case, one university actually dismissed her application, as the recommendations arrived too late for her application to be considered.

Ultimately, my daughter is glad and excited to be attending her State “safety” school in the fall. The university offers many excellent opportunities; she has already made plans regarding a second major, club participation, and nailed-down an employment opportunity. She has her head in the clouds, with her feet firmly planted on the ground. She is, at least, as likely as any other newly admitted student to succeed in a stellar way. This year, she was offered no scholarship, no merit money, and no grants, so she will be taking on her first adult debt in order to attend. She is planning to compete with her class peers for honors, grants, scholarships, and merit money, going-forward. With the dollars I can shake loose, I am betting on her to succeed!

After processing the above, we have realized that the “holistic” review of a given applicant can be skewed by so many factors – even the most “holistic” applicant evaluation cannot really substitute for the college interviews that are now, for the most part, a thing of the past. It is very likely that today’s “holistic” process at the universities begins with a mindless data-clerk driven mass-data entry process which devours the myriad admissions applications, boils them down to an input stream of letters and numbers, plugs them into a database of similarly templated records, and proceeds to chug through the matrixed data, and spit out a report ranking the “holistic” scores. I suspect that, THEN the applications that rank highest on the report are provided a, more holistic, human, analysis, and that offers are made based upon the human analysis performed on only a small fraction of the applications received. How many amazing candidates are buried in a data-hole, rather than wholly evaluated? That is anyone’s guess – in the meantime, when applying to universities who claim to use a “holistic” approach, we have become aware that our application might simply be filling a university’s revenue hole; and that many applications will never be wholly considered, by a human being, at all.

If you feel kinship with my daughter - please share this story? She also has a Go Fund Me Account, if you are willing and able to donate: https://t.co/TfJXHHVq7S


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