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AUDIO | Non-Cognitive Admissions Standards A Must for Adult Students
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AUDIO | Non-Cognitive Admissions Standards A Must for Adult Students

Traditional admissions criteria — focused on test scores and transcripts — may not accurately represent adult students and could be keeping them out of higher education.

The following interview is with Jerome Lucido, special advisor to the provost and executive director of the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice at the University of Southern California. Lucido recently discussed how new measures of student potential will become more common-place in higher education enrollment. In this interview, Lucido explains the issues with the traditional approach to admissions, the impact this approach has on adult students and how non-cognitive admissions standards could help more adults enroll and succeed in higher education.

1. What are the biggest holes in traditional admissions processes?

Well, I think what we tend to see in a traditional admissions process is an over-reliance on means such as grade point average [GPA] and test scores. Not that they’re not important; they measure important things, but sometimes they’re the only things considered and they leave out a lot.

For example, a grade point average … might tell you that a student was able to meet the expectations of the faculty member and meet what the curriculum asked them to do. It doesn’t tell you actually what a student knows, or can do, or what a student’s weaknesses are. So there’s some holes in the GPA.

There’s also holes in the test scores because test scores can add to predictability of success for students, but they don’t measure lots of other things. They don’t measure factors such as persistence, motivation, conscientiousness, integrity, other things as well — ability to set and achieve goals, ability to meet responsibilities, those kinds of things. So, I think the traditional admissions process tends to have an over-reliance on numeric measures that, frankly, could do more to help institutions understand the potentialities of individuals.

2. How do these holes impact applications of prospective adult students?

In a number of ways, I would say. First of all, the traditional measures may no longer be representative of you as a student — as a non-traditional student, an adult learner — who maybe hasn’t been to school in quite a long while and hasn’t taken an exam in quite a long while. And you may have had other experiences, other motivations, other talents that you don’t want to bring to bear. So, on the other hand, if you have poor grades or scores, that may suggest you have a lot to make up, so you don’t want to ignore those but, frankly, standards need to be more flexible for students, for example, over 25.

So, I think there’s an impact in that admission policies need to be more supple for non-traditional students and it tends to force adult or lifelong learners into situations where they have to prove themselves in other ways. Technically these would be community college options as the proving grounds, and they offer some flexibility. So it forces, I think, adults into some other environments.

3. You’re a proponent of non-cognitive admissions standards. What are these?

… If you think about things that create a whole human, you think about, well, this is what might make an individual successful in a course of study and interesting to be with in a classroom and add richness to discussions and add richness of their experiences.

You think of things like: Well, is this person someone who is persistent? Is this person conscientious? Do they meet their obligations? Do they show up? Do they do what is expected? Is this person motivated? … Does this person have integrity? Is this person creative depending upon the course of study that one’s pursuing? Does this person have the ability to set and achieve goals?

So, how do you understand those things? Well, there’s a couple of ways but they are not particularly precise right now and so that’s why we just had a regional conference on this whole matter of non-cognitive variables that was attended by admission professionals from all over the country. They tend to be measured by self-evaluations, such as psychological assessments. Or, they tend to be measured by what you would call “others’ evaluation,” such as letters of recommendation where people write letters about you and say, “This individual has these following characteristics that you should know about.”

So, increasingly, I think — and you hear the terms “holistic” and “comprehensive review” talked about a lot now in college admission — admission professionals are trying to consider these factors. Their challenge, quite frankly, is how to assess these correctly. But if they can assess them well, and really know that they’re there, it can really help. It can help understand a whole individual, and they tend not to be biased in a way that test scores are and other aspects of curriculum are based upon the student’s income, the neighborhoods they live in, the opportunities available for them. Everyone can be persistent, everyone can be highly motivated, everyone can be conscientious and all of these things. Not everyone can go to a fantastic school where every resource is available to them.

4. How could focusing on non-cognitive aspects of applicant learning help more adults gain acceptance to elite institutions?

… If we could find ways to measure effectively or to understand effectively these kinds of characteristics of individuals, it will allow us to make better, more supple, more complete looks at students and therefore make better individual decisions on their behalf.

Now, elite institutions … already attempt to do this. They are reasonably, comparatively, better-funded than some other institutions. They have admissions staff that will actually read essays and personal statements where you can reveal some of these things about yourself. … Adult learners should in fact try to review these types of things about themselves, what makes them fit in their essays and their personal statements and their short answers, and the kind of recommendations that they seek.

I would also argue that the interview process can get at some of this and requesting an interview, particularly for students who have left school some time ago and have advanced their careers or their skill sets and maturity, in many, many different ways, an interview would be helpful. But the more that these get done, the more I think we will find much more diversity in classrooms including adult students, probably the biggest obstacle to elite institutions for lifelong learners is they tend to be fairly rigid in when they offer classes and wanting full-time students, that makes it tough to go part-time. …

I do think they’re finding ways to demonstrate your capabilities through interviews, though essays, through these types of better measurements in the future, as institutions get better at measuring non-cognitive variables, adult students can gave a better leg-up than they do today.

I want to mention one other thing and that is that the movement to Massive Online Open Courses, MOOCs, is a way to help folks to demonstrate their ability to work and to master college-level content.

… I would also quickly add that just similar to traditional-aged students, the goal going to community college isn’t necessarily the right goal. That we tend to focus on them because they are written about most and you read how tough they are and we think they give us a leg-up in life. However, the right choice for college is the best fit. The best fit for what you’re trying to accomplish, the best fit for where you can be successful, who will accommodate you, your needs, your interests, who finds you to be valuable to add to the campus environment. And so, I think just the counselor part of me says, the elite institution shouldn’t always be the number one choice. It may be the prestigious choice but it isn’t necessarily the right choice every time.

5. Is there anything you’d like to add about the importance of non-cognitive standards?

Only that I think it’s very fruitful to keep watching this movement, that there is very good research being done by the educational testing service and by psychologists around the country who are now tying in what is good behavior in professions; what makes a good lawyer? What makes a good doctor? What makes a good business person or entrepreneur?

And they’re figuring out what these kind of variables are. And so this is going to, I think, grow and I think it also suggests that there may be different variables that work for different professions or for different schools.

So, we’re going to keep watching and I think it’s something that will blossom over time.

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3 Responses to AUDIO | Non-Cognitive Admissions Standards A Must for Adult Students

  1. Rhonda White Reply

    2013/05/06 at 9:22 am

    In answer to your question about valuable advice or training — for me, it was the work we did in my program on cultural competency (I use ‘cultural’ in a broader sense than simply race). It used to be that whenever we discussed the students we would one day be teaching, we sort of treated them like one homogenous blob. The work we did on cultural competency in a few classes opened my eyes to the need to understand different perspectives and address different needs. That has helped me as an educator to relate to the students in my class today.

  2. Tyrese Banner Reply

    2013/05/06 at 2:34 pm

    Using psychological assessments is a creative way of thinking, but they might not be as accurate as one would hope. Lucido discusses how tests can be biased — and one need only look at SAT scores to confirm this — but so could psychological assessments, as our understanding of cues and traits is based on cultural interpretations. This is something to keep in mind (excuse the pun) when considering whether to adopt these assessments during the admissions process.

  3. James Branden Reply

    2013/05/07 at 1:25 pm

    I agree with Lucido that measuring non-cognitive skills is a way to level the playing field. Not everyone has access to the same resources that would allow them to perform a certain way on tests or achieve a certain GPA. But there are personal characteristics that transcend race, class and gender, and finding a way to measure those could help create a fairer and more accessible admissions process.

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