Test-optional admissions: A year hence

If you’re a visitor to this site, you know about DePaul University’s decision to become test-optional for freshman admission.  With just a few days to go before our final, official count of freshmen (the fall census), the results from our first admissions cycle are interesting:

  • About ten percent of all applicants applied as test-optional
  • About three percent of all admits applied as test optional
  • Just under five percent of all enrolling students applied as test optional

As one faculty member put it, “So this wasn’t such a big deal, then.”  To which I politely replied, “Well, I hate to say I told you so…” (and of course, I love to say “I told you so.”)

Taking both a higher view of, and making a deeper dive into the data suggests some responses to our early critics:

  • This was a record year for applications to the freshman class
  • It will be the largest freshman class in history; we had predicted our yield to go down, but it actually stayed exactly even with last year (22.9%)
  • The average GPA of enrolling students is at its highest point ever
  • Even once we add in the test scores of the students who applied test-optional (we are collecting them for research purposes) this year’s ACT average will be at a record level (or on par with last year, if not quite a record)

In short, those people who believe a test-optional approach stains our academic reputation seem to have little evidence to back that stance up.

When you start sorting out the test-optional applicants, however, some more interesting patterns emerge:

  • Just under half were White
  • At every High School SES (Socioeconomic Status) band, the test-optional students had higher GPA’s than their counterparts who submitted test scores.  For the students from the lowest SES Schools, the average GPA was a hair under 4.0 (adjusted to fit on a 4.0 scale)
  • Their ACT Scores were as high as 29
  • 35% came from the top 1/8 of the High School Graduating Class; among low SES Schools, this number was 71%
  • Almost 60% came from the highest third of SES High Schools
  • They were distributed mostly toward the middle of our overall academic distribution: Not the superstars, but clearly not the last ones admitted to the class, either.

Now some important research begins: We’ll carefully track the progress of these students as a group, but also individually to see if they progress toward graduation in ways that other students like them (test scores, GPA, strength of curriculum, family income, first-generation status, or ethnicity) do.  Based on results at other universities who have done this, we’re confident those results will be good; if not, we’ll figure out where the gaps are and respond appropriately.

All told, this has been a liberating year after almost 30 years of doing admissions and enrollment work; doing this research, connecting with other people who feel the same, and just thinking about students in more dimensions has been quite a boost.

We’re not out to change the world, but to maybe make opportunity for kids who otherwise might not have thought it possible.  Maybe one of them will end up changing the world.  As with everything, time will tell.


Bier, but not in a Higher Education Context

Occasionally, I write about other things: Things outside the world of Higher Education. This is one of those times.

Today, I’m writing about my favorite Bier style and a Dan Fogelberg song, and in the best tradition of John Donne and the metaphysical poets, I’ll try a little discordia concors as a diversion.

I love a good Bier, even though I only drink about two a week. My favorite style is Märzen Bier, a German style known for its copper color, tan head, very smooth caramel malt flavor, and its low bitterness.  For me, that last part is especially important: Although you can’t really brew Bier without hops, a tendency in the last decade is to see just how much hop bitterness you can cram into a Bier (another is to try to make Belgian styles.  That’s a rant for another day).  Some Bier geeks like to find the hoppiest Bier they can, and lots of microbreweries are catering to them.  I just don’t like Bier with high hop profiles, but I do like this line from a New Yorker article about extreme Bier as it sums up my opinion perfectly:

Garrett Oliver, the brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, told me recently. “When a brewer says, ‘This has more hops in it than anything you’ve had in your life—are you man enough to drink it?,’ it’s sort of like a chef saying, ‘This stew has more salt in it than anything you’ve ever had—are you man enough to eat it?’

So, this is my favorite time of the year, in part because I love cooler weather, but mostly because Märzen Bier is now available in stores.  You probably don’t know what  Märzen Bier is, unless I call it by its more traditional name: Oktoberfest beer.  There are lots of good ones out there: Paulaner, Hacker-Pschorr, Great Lakes, Samuel Adams, and Köstritzer, to name a few, and others, like Spaten, Ayinger, and Erdinger that other people seem to like more than I do.

In the 1800’s in Germany, when Märzen became the de facto Oktoberfest style, it was seasonal because there was no refrigeration.  You can read about that here. I’m glad to say we’ve come a long way in 200 years, and you can now brew and lager Märzen all year long.  But the Oktoberfest name makes it sound like you’d only want to drink it in the fall.

It occured to me that it suffers the same fate as the Dan Fogelberg song, Same Old Lang Syne. You hear it every year at Christmas just because the song’s story line takes place on Christmas Eve. But the song is not about Christmas.  Similarly, we get Märzen in the Fall because it’s been labeled Oktoberfest Bier. But it’s delicious all year long, and I find it extremely refreshing even on a hot summer evening.  If you don’t believe me, ask Gordon Biersch, the restaurant where a waitress told me that Märzen is the biggest seller all year round.

Now, I don’t really care if I hear the Dan Fogelberg song in July.  But I’d like to get Märzen available more widely all year long.  Just stop calling it Oktoberfest Bier, and see what happens.

Who’s with me?

What Laymen and the SCOTUS Need to Know About Admissions

Note:  Although I’ve said it elsewhere on this blog, I want to emphasize that these opinions are mine.

Ever since the Michigan cases, and now with the Fisher case before the Supreme Court, something has bothered me: The way the average person just does not understand how college admission is done.  I suppose this is true of every profession: I have no idea what an accounting job or a chef’s job is like, for instance.

But just as we don’t choose Supreme Court Justices by looking at GPA and LSAT Scores and Bar Exams, neither do we make an admissions decision based on two simple criteria.  Every case in which someone says another “less qualified person” was admitted to his or her detriment misses this point completely.  And as my old logic professor used to tell us: Always attack the premise.

So, as we were thinking about joining an Amicus Brief with several other Catholic Colleges and Universities, I tried to put into writing what I’ve learned about admissions in the last 30 years.  Here goes:

  • At its core, an admissions decision suggests that someone or some group of people at the university has determined that the student is capable of doing the necessary college-level work to graduate with a bachelor’s degree.  Without this, any other discussion is moot: Admissions professionals consider it abhorrent to admit a student they deem incapable of succeeding.
  • At the same time, statistical models are really not as good as people might believe in predicting the extent of college success.  While the overwhelming majority of students admitted mange to stay above the threshold of satisfactory academic performance, there is of course wide variation between those who perform at a C (2.0 level) and those who perform at a A (4.0) level.  (And given central limit theorem, it will never be possible to enroll a class of students who all perform “above average.”) Using any combination of academic variables we collect at the point of admission, we can only get a statistical r-squared of about .2, meaning that only 20% of this variance is explained by the inputs we presume to be telling; the rest is clearly determined by other factors not deemed academic in nature.  This is true almost everywhere, not just at DePaul.
  • Thus, the definition of “Who is qualified for admission?” seems to be essentially unanswerable by the two simple things many deem to be the sole criteria: HS GPA and test scores.
  • This is especially telling when a college or university has to deny students who, based on simplistic criteria, appear to be more academically qualified than those who are admitted. When you only have so much room, you’re faced with admitting a whole group of kids who look and act alike, or mixing it up a little to improve the educational environment.
  • And additionally, such choices are compounded when an admissions officer attempts to measure potential rather than accomplishment (which of course presumes that “accomplishment” can be standardized across 35,000 high schools and hundreds of thousands of teachers offering millions of sections of classes.)  Obvious inequality of opportunity makes measuring either prior academic achievement or potential to succeed virtually impossible.
  • The history of college admission, however, is not one of making simplistic decisions based on two variables (N.B. that some state schools are mandated to do exactly this, however).  Admissions officers have long sought additional information (writing samples; letters of recommendation outlining, among other things a student’s learning styles and ability to contribute to the classroom and the community; out-of-class accomplishments) to round out the picture of the students they admit to the university, because a university is not solely an enterprise dedicated to passing information to those who are ostensibly most capable of receiving it.  John Cardinal Newman, for instance, in “The Idea of a University” and later Jaroslav Pelikan in “The Idea of the University: A Reexamination” both suggest that a university is a community that develops a wide variety of people for a wide range of outcomes.  Newman even suggests that only 1/3 of university education occurs in the classroom, suggesting that the remaining two-thirds come from self-directed study and other students.  Other factors, often far removed from academic realms (athletic ability, legacy status) are often considered in light of their effect on the total university community.
  • Beyond the core decision, however, one must consider the particular university’s mission or its raison d’etre.  Typically, the mission does not just stipulate why a particular university exists, but also articulates certain obligations, for instance:
    •  To the students it serves.  At DePaul, this ranges from traditional liberal arts programs to professional programs with career focus.  The university has an obligation to educate students who come seeking broader intellectual exposure or top-quality professional preparation, or both; all of which require exposure to a wide range of ideas and people.
    • To the community it serves. The mission statement of DePaul articulates a symbiotic relationship with Chicago, a diverse, global city, in which the university draws from, and contributes to, the city in an attempt to improve both.
    • To the market for its graduates. The critical underpinnings of financial and academic success of DePaul are based on the university’s ability to produce graduates who are ready to work in a demanding, diverse, changing society and workplace.
  • Thus, admissions officers take into account a wide variety of factors when considering an individual candidate, because admissions strives to create a campus community best aligned with the university mission.  In other words, admissions decisions are not simply sequential, serial binary decisions, but rather a series of complex, inter-related ones.  Race can be a factor, although almost always a very minor one, and often comingled with other variables that don’t fall under strict construction (socio-economic status, first-generation college student status, geographic diversity, etc.) This is, by most accounts, as much in the interest of creating a community with as wide a range of backgrounds and interests as is possible, as in the interest of attempting to account for the undeniable effects of race on educational opportunity and its covariance with other factors indicated above.

There it is.  I’d love to hear what you think, especially if you disagree.


College Admission: The Kardashian Effect

The other night my wife and I were sitting on our deck with guests and long-time friends Nancy and Al Maly from Grinnell.  Among us we have about 60 years of college admission experience, so naturally the topic tends to come up when we get together.  That, and Al’s fascination with the proper way to pour a Weißbier.

My wife suggested that I’m so enamored of my employer DePaul because of its commitment to finding talent among populations colleges don’t always serve well.  In my case, that would be first-generation and low-income.  (I remember filling out the FAF, now called the FAFSA, in 1970-something and being taken back that my father made $17,000 in his best year; mom didn’t work outside the home.)  There may be something to that.

But more important, I think, is my belief that I got a pretty good education despite the fact that I didn’t go to a name brand institution.  And a lot of people I know can say the same thing; collectively, we seem almost apologetic for not going to colleges we never even thought we could or should dream about.  And we’re doing just fine, as are many people who did go to the Holy Grail Schools of my generation.

I suggested that if students today were to dedicate as much effort to real learning and intellectual exploration as they spent on getting into college in the first place, everyone might be better off.

To which my wife replied, “Today it’s more about the wedding than the marriage.”

Brilliant.  How often to you (quietly) posit that the elaborate, over-the-top wedding portends a short marriage?  Or that the couple that keeps it simple and respectful has their heads screwed on straight?

Like a Kardashian wedding, it seems college admission today is more about the big event than it is about what comes after.  And I think that’s a shame; not on the students, but on the parents, colleges, and counselors who have made it that way.  We can do better.

Some more thinking about Test Optional

This week at DePaul begins a series of farewells as Helmut Epp leaves the position of Provost that he’s held for seven of his 38 years at DePaul.  The Newsline Story that should be out tomorrow contains a brief summary of an amazing life led by a remarkable man.  But this copy, taken from the original, stood out:

Epp attended Evanston Township High School, although not for as long as is the norm. He was suspended at age 15 and expelled at 16—the legal age at which a student can be removed from school. His crime was taking a graduate math class at nearby Northwestern University when he should have been in class or study hall at Evanston. “You could say I’m a high school dropout, although that’s not technically correct because I didn’t drop out. I was asked to leave,” says Epp with his trademark wry sense of humor. 

He then enrolled in an undergraduate program for younger students at the University of Chicago. Cash-strapped and unable to afford to live on campus, his long daily commute from Evanston to Hyde Park became too much, and he left school after one quarter. He spent three years working intermittently programming 1950s-era computers and traveling. “After wasting three years of my life, I tried to enroll as an undergrad at Northwestern, but they wouldn’t accept me because I didn’t have a high school diploma. What changed my life was the open-mindedness and flexibility of the dean of Northwestern’s graduate school, a Shakespeare scholar named Moody Prior. After examining me about my background, he allowed me to enroll in the mathematics Ph.D. program. When I finished, I dedicated my dissertation to him.” 

So, our Provost has neither a high school diploma nor a college degree, yet managed to earn a Ph.D. from Northwestern, and live a fulfilling, successful life in academia.  And it’s because, at least in part (and despite the convention of the day), someone recognized talent without relying on the standard measures of accomplishment we use in education.

It reminded me that this is exactly why we decided to pursue our test-optional policy: To find bright, capable students who can succeed if we only look beyond the measures we’ve always been asked to consider.  And we hope our message encourages students to understand that they have a chance.

It’s unlikely, of course, that we’ll uncover many Helmut Epps out there; stories like this are pretty rare.  And if you’ve met the man, you believe he would have been successful at whatever he tried.

But who knows?  We’ll keep looking.

A Response to Flowing Data

This morning, after being out of the office for a long weekend because of NATO in Chicago, I checked traffic on this blog.  It was far higher than usual, most of it coming from this post by Kim Rees at Flowing Data, who was very condescending about my post on visualizing ACT Scores.

I like good debate about data visualization.  About almost anything, really.  But this seemed a bit off, for several reasons:

  • It appears Ms. Rees didn’t read the blog post that accompanied the chart.  Had she understood the intent of the graphic–to tell a story rather than to provide precise comparisons among groups–she might have not had anything to write about. Fortunately, most of the comments on the site pointed this out, even though not everyone thought the graphic was perfect.  I actually join them in acknowledging this.
  • She didn’t give me a chance to respond prior to “picking on” me, something she says she does not like to do right before doing it.
  • Her suggestions for alternatives (a violin chart and a bean chart) would not even come close to doing what this graphic does. In fact, I’ve been interested in visualizing data for several years, and I can’t even begin to tell you how to interpret these charts.  In addition, they’re ugly, as are most of the charts on the site she points to.

But in the interest of doing better, I took another stab at it.  I used Tableau, of course.  Here’s one take on it:

I’ve broken the data into four large groups by ethnicity and then into smaller groups by self-reported income.  The length of the bar shows the number of records; the color of the bar shows the average ACT of the students in that group (dark gold is low, dark purple is high), as does the label.  Better?


This, of course, fails to show the distribution; you get a sense of it, but it does give you some greater detail.  What about distributions?  Try this, and see if it makes the point, even though it’s impossible to compare the number of records in each group, even if you were to label them.  These are grouped into a smaller number of income bands for clarity, and show stacked, 100% bars colored by groups of ACT Scores.  Labels show individual scores, which are grouped by color for visual impression.

And you know what?  I still like the feathers.