UMass admissions to undergo changes

The fear and uncertainty is hard to forget. The day will always be remembered. It was early April, and high school graduation was less than two months away.

The fear of the unknown was weighing down on the shoulders of many high school students. It was the fork in the road, asking who they would become and how they would get there. A simple piece of stationary held the fate of future education in its printed words. It was the day of the college acceptance letter.

Since freshman year, many high school students are constantly reminded of the looming prospect of college. College counselors hammer excellence in grades, SATs, extracurriculars, leadership skills and athletics like nails of success into student’s heads. But to whose ears were the politics of the application process, like affirmative action, explained?

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this past June that the University of Michigan undergraduate school’s use of a point system for the admissions policy was unconstitutional. The school had been admitting students by using a point system where applicants were awarded a certain number of points based on race and other non-academic factors.

Previously, University Admissions offices used non-academic categories, such as race, when processing student applications. This process of affirmative action was created to provide underrepresented groups, who are often discriminated against, with an equal opportunity to get into universities and colleges. And while the Court this summer upheld that non-academic factors, including race, might be considered when reviewing an applicant, it ruled that no admissions policy can be based predominately on the factor of race.

This Supreme Court ruling hit hard, giving the face of affirmative action a much different look and leaving college and university administrators across the country scrambling to recreate new admissions policies – including the University of Massachusetts.

The Supreme Court vs. UMass

“After the Supreme Court ruling, the University was required to review its admissions criteria,” said Michael Gargano, Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs. “The Supreme Court states that one admission criteria can’t have more weight than another. Admissions needs to become more comprehensive – a holistic approach.”

Gargano’s approach examines factors other than race, grade point average and SAT results. The new system allows for a broader view of the applicant by means of things such as special talents, family lifestyle, learning disabilities and hardships.

Like the University of Michigan, the past UMass admissions policy was based on a point system. A certain number of points were awarded for qualities such as class rank, ethnicity, leadership, native language, country of origin, veterans and hardships. A total of 10 possible points could be earned in categories ranging from SATs to class rank. GPA status could be awarded with as much as 7.5 points. A minority applicant could be awarded a half a point.

“It may not seem like much,” said Joe Marshall of the committee for the Collegiate Education of Black and other Minority Students (CCEBMS), “But it really was a lot.”

Chuck DiMare, Director of Legal Services, said in Massachusetts alone, there are at least 35 categories under which applicants can be considered.

“[Now] one sole criterion to award won’t pass consistently,” he said.

Racial Diversity and the National Demographics

At UMass in particular, acknowledgment of race seems to be falling by the wayside in recent waves of student applications. This makes it somewhat harder for admissions to insure racial diversity.

“Less and less, students are filling out the section on race and ethnicity. They just don’t see themselves in any of those categories,” Gargano said.

One proposed admissions change at UMass is to create a student body that reflects the national demographic. The 2000 census estimated in the United States, 75.1 percent of the population was white, 12.5 percent was Hispanic or Latino, 12.3 percent was Black or African American and 3.6 percent was Asian.

Gargano also pointed out that race is not the only means by which to create diversity on campus.

“We are trying to accomplish this in the admissions process,” he said. “We also want diversity based on gender, the number of state representatives, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status and special talents.”

The SAT and GPA

While the new admissions policies sound positive from the administrative point of view, there are still some concerns. The most recent has been the use of the SATs and what the test results actually determine about the applicant.

According to Gargano, UMass will continue to hold steady weight on SAT scores. Many competitive schools rely heavily on SATs in order to reduce overwhelming applicant pools. The test can often bring disappointment for those who are well qualified for a seat in a prestigious freshman class, yet perform poorly on standardized tests.

Arguments against the test refer to studies that have shown that racial minorities and people of low-income areas tend to score worse than other groups. Those who oppose the use of the SATs argue that the test is written with a bias, and that there is a strong correlation between high test scores and wealth.

According to Gargano, UMass will continue to use the SATs and GPA heavily in the admissions process, but will still consider other factors as well.

Russell Plato, Student Government Association Secretary of Diversity, said the practice wouldn’t keep minorities from being accepted.

“I am aware that a combination of the SAT and GPA is one of the best indictors of success in college. We are school kids; we have GPAs. If someone can’t do well in an academic environment, they should consider [presenting] other factors to get themselves in,” he said.

GPA weight has received mixed opinions on the UMass campus. Kregg Strehorn, Director of Learning Disabilities Support Services, said that different high school systems can sometimes present drastically different grades for many different levels of difficulty.

Therefore, a paper that earns a B+ in a system may only be worth a C in another, and admissions may need to consider other information in lieu of low scores due to the grade inflation.

Marshall fully supports the use of SATs and GPAs, which allows UMass to raise its standards of applicants, increasing the selectiveness of the University. Depending on the applicant pool, the admissions office needs to do nothing to admit students with higher scores.

“Our applicant pool changes every year. The students we have been getting have on average higher SATs every year,” he said. “Better students bring better GPAs. We always felt that these were the best indicators.”

‘The Myth of Acceptance’

While the admissions policies continue to change, another area of concern on the UMass campus is supplying the needs of a more diverse campus. The brunt of this burden falls on the shoulders of the many minority and special interest groups on campus.

In Learning Disability Support Services, Strehorn has noticed similar deficits.

“No matter what the admissions policies are, students are going to want to come to a school for its programs. People [with learning disabilities] are being accepted and think they will be provided [with programs] when they’re not. I call this ‘the myth of acceptance.’ “

Strehorn believes that while admitting students to create a mixed population, accommodations must be made for the many different types of student needs. This may not be an easy task as the UMass community continues to suffer from the effects of the budget cuts, which have reduced and eliminated many student service programs.

Strehorn said that often, a student with a special need or advantage will be admitted to the University, only to find he or she cannot be accommodated for because of budget cuts
or overall lack of program. This leaves many students disillusioned and discouraged.

Manuela Littlefield, Associate Director of Advising Services of the Bilingual Collegiate Program is skeptical about how the UMass environment will continue to provide learning services and programs for the new minorities.

“The numbers of the incoming populations have declined, especially the Latino population,” she said. “The students complain a lot; they come here for help and can’t find a basis.”

Littlefield said this dissent is mainly because of lack of funding, which has drained the system of advising programs.

“While other parts of the University are being established, ours is being demolished,” she said. “The administration is not really consulting minorities. You have to be in a position of color to understand our situation. If more students of color are coming here, the objective should be to help them excel and graduate.”

The Power of the Essay

Considering the multitude of angles the admissions policy must cover, how will the administration see every applicant as an individual? Many schools across the nation are resorting to an old standby: the essay. Some schools, such as Ohio State University, now require applicants to complete four different essays.

“I love the idea. I think that’s especially great. It’s another way [applicants] can disclose personal information,” said Strehorn. “If we are asking more people to come to this school, we might want to invest more money on who is coming here. We’d get a much better idea of who they are.”

The sentiment runs popular among certain student perspectives as well.

“If I were Gargano, I’d add essays that explain backgrounds, interests and talents,” said Plato. “I’d also increase the size of the administration office. The more people we have thinking and reading each application, the better.”

When asked, the vice chancellor agreed that essays were necessary, but not in high multitudes. He said one well-written essay could help identify a student well.

“What’s really happening out there is students aren’t actually writing their essays,” Gargano said. “They get help from parents and teachers. It’s not really their own work.”

He said the UMass admissions policy is a work in progress. Although the revised admissions policy won’t be fully revamped for a few more semesters, the saga unfolding at UMass reflects developments taking place on campuses across the country. It will all be a process of experimentation.