Success in College goes Beyond Grades

Success in College goes Beyond Grades
Published Thursday October 16, 2008

Colleges use several criteria to gauge a student's readiness for higher education, but predicting a student's success is more art than science in some cases.

Whether it's grade point average or a quality like leadership, some interpretation is involved.

"These factors help us determine what to expect from our applicants," said David Duzik, admissions director at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln.

Less on tests

Colleges vary in their criteria when it comes to admissions. Almost every college considers ACT/SAT scores, grade-point average and college prep classes when selecting students. However, concerns about the validity and fairness of ACT/SAT results — sometimes based on cultural bias or high-achivers who are poor at taking tests — are prompting some colleges to place less emphasis on test scores.

Don Bishop, associate vice president for enrollment management at Creighton University, has spent his career studying college performance indicators, including the role of test scores.

Bishop said certain attributes "that correlate to academic success in college are not significantly measured during a four-hour test on a single day."

To compensate, Creighton has lessened its emphasis on test scores when admitting students.

In a similar move, Brownell Talbot Prepatory School in Omaha is going "test optional" in its admissions review process, said Stacey Evert, director of college counseling at Brownell.

Because colleges want well-rounded students, they know that far more than test scores must be measured, Evert said.

Other qualifications

The College Board, a nonprofit membership association for higher education initiatives, has added an optional essay to its ACT/SAT tests, said Les Monroe, director of college planning for the EducationQuest Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose mission to improve access to higher education in Nebraska.

Many colleges now require students to submit an essay or educational-purpose statement. Some colleges also interview students and review letters of recommendation from high school teachers and counselors.

The University of Nebraska system has made no recent changes in the minimum test scores required for admission, said Jolene Adams, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

But each campus in the NU system, according to Adams, "has the prerogative" to consider any additional data it sees fit for students failing to meet assured status but still fall under review. The extra information helps institutions assess the whole student.

"Schools now look more at class performance and activities than test scores. The quality of challenging course work is also, as always, very important. The single best indicator is the student's four-year performance in high school," Bishop said.

"Basically, the question for admissions offices is, 'Who uses their intellect the best and creates a productive body of work over an extended period of time?' These are the students most likely to repeat that result at college," he said.

Driven to success

A student's activities outside the classroom, such as studying abroad, school and community service projects, or a job or internship, are markers for the highly motivated, socially engaged profile schools desire, experts say. Passion and drive can be just as important as critical thinking or problem-solving. Writing skills are a plus, too.

"Students who earn good grades in high school, are an active member of their school and community or who demonstrate the potential success in their other activities will have our attention," Duzik said.

Admissions offices also track academic progress throughout a student's high school years. A strong performance during the junior and senior years is critical. A downturn raises red flags.

The whole picture

Experts agree that no single factor is a reliable predictor of academic success. A variety of measures offers the best projection, including grades.

"From my experience, I can tell you colleges here in Nebraska actually look at the complete package — the whole collection of what a student has done," Monroe said.

Leo Adam Biga is a freelance writer based in Omaha.
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