College Admission Decisions: Can’t We Do Better?

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As young people approach the end of their high school years, they and their families go through the ritual of applying for admission to the colleges and universities of their choice. They take standardized college admissions tests, write essays, complete applications, secure letters of reference, and then wait and hope for good news. In some form, this process has been a part of the transition from high school to higher education for generations.

However, it has never been more competitive. More high school graduates seek to continue their formal education today than at any time in history. In fact, over the past few decades the portion of high school graduates enrolling in higher education has grown from roughly 50 percent in the 1970s to over 70 percent today. The recent scandal over college admissions and attempts to manipulate the system is one piece of evidence proving how competitive this high-stakes process can be.

Still, there is an open question regarding whether this complicated, competitive process works as well as it should. The standardized tests, SAT and ACT, along with other information students submit are intended to predict future success in college. There is some evidence that the combination of these test scores and high school grade point averages hold the potential to predict success in the first year of college. But, roughly half of all students who enter college will drop out. We have among the highest dropout rates of the world’s developed nations. We need to ask whether the current application and admissions processes work as well as they should and whether we can do better.

After all, dropping out before college completion is expensive. Students often incur debts they will later struggle to pay. Further, our society has no credible safety net to assist young people when they return to their communities and need to support themselves and build a career. The results are too often lost years, financial struggle, and an emotional toll that can last a lifetime.

Attention is now growing around the historically core role standardized tests have played in the admissions process. A high score on the SAT or ACT multiple-choice questions and doing well on the timed essay associated with the tests have been key elements in the admissions decision. But a growing number of colleges and universities are moving away from requiring the timed essay as part of the admissions process. Since the essays were added to the testing regimen in the mid-2000s, colleges and universities have not found the information to be as useful and predictive as anticipated. Some universities are also moving away from requiring the SAT or ACT altogether. Most recently the University of Chicago, the third highest ranked university in the nation, dropped the testing requirement. Other universities are reportedly considering a similar move.

Still the question remains: How can we predict readiness for and success in college? If the systems we have are not working well enough, what other options can we consider? There is some potentially good news here.

Rather than attempting to make the current standardized tests better, researchers are turning to technology and the promise of simulations, much like video games. A recent Bloomberg Businessweek article (Ratnesar, 2019) profiled a growing company that is developing a technology-based simulation that can measure cognitive abilities, decision-making skills, adaptability, critical thinking, and other skills important to success in college. The system also adjusts and presents unique tasks and challenges to users, so cheating the system is more difficult.

The company has already partnered with the global consulting company McKinsey and Co. along with others to test the system’s ability to predict success with prospective employees. Early results are very promising.

Of course, college testing services is a $10 billion business and standardized tests are a staple of the college admissions tradition, so dislodging the current process will not be easy. On the other hand, helping young people make good decisions about their future and positioning them to contribute to our society and economy certainly is more important. Technology has transformed our lives in countless ways in the past few decades. Maybe the way we decide college admissions is next.

What do you think about technology and simulations playing a role in college admissions? Might this be a better approach than timed essays and multiple-choice questions? Is it time for more detailed information to inform students about their skills and potential for college success?

References:
Ratnesar, R. (2019, March 19). What if instead of taking the SAT you got to play a video game? Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2019-03-19/a-harvard-dropout-s-plan-to-fix-college-admissions-with-video-games

Sykes, M. (2018, June 18). Go deeper: Why colleges are abandoning standardized testing. Retrieved from https://www.axios.com/chicago-university-sat-act-testing-optional-015296ef-b0b0-42f2-9602-d689dcfc60a0.html

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