A year ago, Natalie Izlar felt herself drowning in responsibilities. The high school senior was performing with several local Durham theaters, applying to colleges and trying to keep her GPA from tanking.
“It was really stressful, because we were told colleges were looking at our extracurricular activities as well as our GPA and standardized test scores,” the UNC Asheville freshman says over a cup of coffee.
Her top choices included Oberlin, Carleton and several UNC system schools. She didn’t get into all of them, however, and after surviving the intimidating application process, she now had to decide which of the colleges that had accepted her would make the most financial sense.
Like Izlar, many students are struggling to keep their heads above water in the face of academic and financial stress.
Last month, Harvard’s Graduate School of Education released a report titled “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good Through College Admissions” as part of its Making Caring Common Project. In conjunction with nonprofits and academic institutions across the country, the project aims to reduce the emphasis on standardized test scores and create a more inclusive academic environment that will ultimately produce more balanced and successful human beings.
Meanwhile, three Western North Carolina colleges are already taking action to address admissions pressures.
Beyond test scores
Last fall, UNCA’s incoming freshman class reflected a different approach. Rather than relying on computers, counselors read individual applicants’ essays and reviewed their high school curricula, and test scores were given less weight.
“When standardized tests were introduced, college admissions were dealing, by and large, with a single socio-economic class of people,” explains Joe Urgo, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at UNC Asheville. And since the applicants “all had roughly the same experience,” he continues, giving them a standardized test made sense, “to sort of help sort them out.”
But with today’s vastly more diverse college applicant pool, such tests are less accurate predictors of student performance, notes Urgo. Accordingly, UNCA now considers many different aspects of an applicant’s academic and extracurricular history.
Western Carolina University, too, has adopted a more holistic approach, notes Phil Cauley, director of student recruitment and transitions.
“What other things have you used your time doing?” he explains. “Do you have any service component? Do you demonstrate leadership? Are there unusual circumstances over the course of your high school years that might be a scale-tipper?”
And though both schools say they’re putting less emphasis on standardized tests, applicants at all 16 UNC branches are still required to submit test scores. In contrast, Warren Wilson College established a test-optional policy last summer that affects all applicants beginning this fall.
“Our applicants’ ethical and community-oriented nature, kindness, concern for the common good — these are the types of things that Warren Wilson has always valued,” says Janelle Holmboe, vice president for enrollment. “I mean, really, the ‘Turning the Tide’ report was, in some ways, a validation of who we are as an institution.”
Test scores, notes Holmboe, can still be submitted, but they’re as important or unimportant as the applicant chooses to make them. Essentially, students with limited extracurricular activities can round out their application with a higher test score.
Four fateful hours
But while standardized tests still have a place in today’s higher education, some recent studies have thrown their value into question. A 2014 report by William C. Hiss and Valerie W. Franks found no significant difference in either GPA or graduation rate between college students admitted with and without test scores. And meanwhile, the study concluded, standardized testing tends to “artificially truncate the pools of applicants who would succeed if they could be encouraged to apply.”
All this plays out against a backrop of students who are already highly stressed. A 2014 American Psychological Association survey found that high school age teens reported stress levels comparable to and sometimes higher than those reported by adults. And with so much riding on the results, taking standardized tests can seem impossibly daunting.
“So many students put so much pressure on themselves that they almost set themselves up for failure with that test,” says Shannon Earle, assistant provost for admissions and financial aid at UNCA. “So I would rather look at what you do for four years in that classroom than what you do in four hours on a Saturday morning, knowing that so much rides on how you perform on this test.”
UNCA senior Matthew McGregor, a 37-year-old mass communication major, also takes a dim view of standardized tests. “They keep changing. My father took one without a calculator; people talk now about how you’re supposed to have one. They’re actually easier than they used to be.”
And meanwhile, he continues, “People are fluid. It’s trying to pin someone down in a certain point in their life.”
Revising admissions policies goes only so far, however. For high school students, says Izlar, “It definitely is hard to keep track of everything. I feel that, in a lot of ways, your extracurricular activities are more important, because you get references for later on in life, and that helps you out more than just A-B Honor Roll.” Changing the system, she maintains, should really start with giving these students more opportunities for the kinds of internships that colleges often promote.
But in any case, there may be limits to how much such efforts can ameliorate an inherently stressful time.
“These kids are really young, and they’re making one of the most important decisions of their life,” continues Izlar. “Whether or not you’re going to college and where you’re going to college: These are really shaping years. I feel it shaping me, man.”