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Admission Standards Dropping at Three UNC Campuses

GPA can supplement low SAT scores at three HBCUs

Starting next fall, N.C. Central University, Elizabeth City State University, and Fayetteville State University will be allowed to admit students with SAT scores as low as 750 (the current systemwide minimum is 800). The three historically black universities are part of a pilot program approved at the October UNC Board of Governors meeting.

The pilot is based on two contested premises: 1) a high school GPA is a better predictor of collegiate success than an SAT score; and 2) it is necessary to “level the playing field” by making college more accessible to those who don’t perform well on standardized tests, especially when those students come from low-income households and poorer school districts.

Craig Souza, chairman of the Educational Planning, Policies, and Programs Committee, aggressively supported the initiative. “I am lobbying for this, yes I am,” he joked at one point. “We have a responsibility to reach down and get these kids in schools.”

Committee members Hari Nath and Steve Long were less optimistic about the idea. They said that grade inflation could become an issue at the high school level as teachers and guidance counselors, attempting to “help” students on the cusp, might manipulate grades.

And Long asked, “Are we getting into remedial education that should be [provided by a] community college?”

Souza quickly dismissed those concerns. “I think this is a good experiment that we will learn from. I just don’t see any downside to it,” he said.

But Long and board member Doyle Parrish believe the pilot could be a “slippery slope.” They are concerned that it could be the starting point for moving the entire UNC system in the direction of SAT-optional admissions.

If UNC system schools go test-optional, they would not be alone. More than 800 four-year colleges and universities do not require applicants to submit standardized test scores. In recent years, prestigious schools such as Sarah Lawrence College, Brandeis University, and Wake Forest University have made that transition.

A 2014 study by the National Association for College Admissions Counselors compared students who submitted SAT scores and those who didn’t. The findings showed virtually no difference in the success of the students, according to the authors. The study, which gained national attention, was based on an analysis of 5 percent of schools with test-optional policies.

Other writers have supported the value of the SAT as a predictor of success. According to professors David Hambrick and Christopher Chabris, the takeaway from a recent study of 150,000 students from 110 colleges is that “SAT scores predicted first-year college GPA about as well as high school grades did, and the best prediction was achieved by considering both factors.”

The UNC system’s experiment is the brainchild of N.C. Central’s Debra Saunders-White, who became chancellor last summer. Saunders-White told the board that the pilot is not about boosting enrollment, but about providing “opportunity.”

It is generally acknowledged, however, that the minimum admissions standards mandated in recent years have contributed to reductions in enrollment at some HBCUs. For example, one of the universities participating in the new admissions pilot, Elizabeth City State, saw its enrollment decline by 25 percent from fall 2010 to fall 2013.

The pilot will incorporate a “sliding scale” that weighs an applicant’s high school GPA more heavily than his or her SAT score, which cannot fall below 750. Admitted students must have high school GPAs above the system’s 2.5 (C+) minimum, and GPAs must increase by 0.1 with each 10-point SAT score decline.

For example, an applicant with a 790 SAT will need a GPA of 2.6 or higher. At the 750 minimum, a student’s GPA must be at least 3.0. Each school will be allowed to admit 100 students (all in-state) below the 800 SAT threshold each fall. General Administration predicts that the three-year pilot will result in 600 new enrollments.

Monitoring of the special admits will be intensive. Resources will flow to academic mentorship, counseling, and student assessments. At the board meeting, Long argued that if a GPA is indeed a better indicator of college success, the additional academic guidance and oversight should be considered unnecessary.

Souza said that Winston-Salem State University and UNC-Pembroke eventually may join the pilot program. The chancellors at the participating universities will have to report annually to UNC system president Thomas Ross. Ross will then provide progress reports to the Board of Governors each January.

Only four of 32 board members voted against the latest admissions pilot.

Jesse Saffron is a writer and editor for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.