Through the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, students can view their applications to schools where they were accepted and attend, as
publicized by Stanford University newsletter The Fountain Hopper in January.
Earlier this year, with the hopes of gaining insight into the admissions process, the Daily worked with nine students who viewed their applications to the University, along with evaluative comments made by the Office of Undergraduate Admissions.
The nine students represented a variety of genders, class standings, races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, socioeconomic statuses, in- and out-of-state residencies, nationalities and geographic areas. The University did not allow the students to make copies or photographs of the applications, but did permit them to take handwritten notes, which they provided to the Daily for the purpose of this article.
This article was written with the purpose of providing more first-person information about a typically closed process often surrounded by assumption and myth, with the understanding that among an application pool of tens of thousands, testimonials from individual applications will not necessarily be definitive of the overall process.
Cumulatively, over the three years covered in student applications reviewed by the Daily — 2012, 2013 and 2014 — nearly 140,000 prospective students applied to the University.
What the admissions office’s final decisions stemmed from, according to the applications we reviewed, were largely an average of two- or three-page-long evaluations and a rating between 1 and 15 — 1 being the highest rating an application can receive, 15 being the lowest.
Among the nine students’ applications, there were several different paths taken through the admissions office before being admitted to the University.
Some were only evaluated by an admissions staff member and a senior admissions staff member, for a total of two evaluations. Others, however, had an additional evaluation from an admissions territory counselor.
In an interview with the Daily, Erica Sanders, interim director of the Office of Admissions, and Melissa Purdy, assistant director of the Office of Admissions, said applications receive differing numbers of evaluations based on the first evaluator — one of 82 part-time staff members who are assigned files at random.
According to the admissions office website, the staff members are “former educators and admissions professionals.”
LinkedIn searches of employees who reviewed applications provided to the Daily showed backgrounds including a substitute teacher and tour guide staff coordinator.
A particularly high or low rating at this stage, Sanders said, causes an application to be expedited, meaning it goes directly to a senior admissions staff member who assigns the applicant’s second and final rating.
Among applications reviewed, scores of 1, 2 and 3 were all expedited.
Applications that are not expedited instead go to the applicant’s territory counselor — a member of the admissions office who serves as the liaison for a particular geographic area — for a second evaluation, and then typically move to a senior staff member for a third and final evaluation.
“The territory counselor is able to add that added nuance to the review process that the first evaluator isn’t necessarily going to be able to do with a lack of familiarity of that particular high school,” Purdy said.
Regardless of which path the Daily-reviewed applications took through the system, their evaluations were largely similar in format — a standardized form accompanied by an overall rating.
Four main types of information were highlighted by the standardized form: personal or extenuating circumstances, high school academic performance and overall educational environment, counselor and teacher recommendations, and any other evaluative measures or considerations.
Additionally, evaluators filled out an overall comments section, which was typically where the rationale for the rating and a more subjective evaluation of notes in the rest of the form was found.
Among applications the Daily reviewed, academic record stood out as a key focus.
Both in the section for academic performance and in overall comments, each evaluator noted the applicant’s GPA, standardized test scores and the number of core, honors, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes taken compared to the number available at the applicant’s high school.
Also noted were average standardized test scores and the four-year-college-going rate at the applicant’s high school, drawn either from information provided by the high schools or from Descriptor PLUS, a College Board data set purchased by the University.
According to Sanders, when it comes to academic performance, evaluators not only look at the raw numbers, but also at what an average student looks like in the applicant’s high school and geographic area.
“So, that (as) we’re evaluating the application, we’re able to determine — is this a student who took advantage of curriculum opportunities that were available, or were there no opportunities available to the student?” she said.
For many of the applications reviewed, in written comments, evaluators paid special attention to coursework, noting varying facts about levels of rigor and more unique opportunities.
Part of the overall comments for one applicant read, “Is taking a rigorous schedule. Has challenged by dual-enrolling, taking summer workshops.” A second evaluator wrote that the same applicant had taken four AP classes, and added, “which is not out of ordinary at school.”
For another application, an evaluator noted the “challenged rigor available at (applicant’s high school).” A second noted the applicant had taken six AP classes, characterizing that as “strong curr(iculum) for school.”
Other applications specifically noted student interest in University academic units, such as the Residential College, or professional career tracks, such as premedical.
Grades also were subjects of additional comments in some cases. Several application evaluations referenced an upward grade trend, and several others noted class grades below a B.
In one application, the high school in and of itself garnered attention, and was identified as “high priority underrepresented” due to the school’s “cluster.” Sanders said the term referred to a classification system provided as part of Descriptor PLUS.
Descriptor PLUS groups high schools in “clusters” through similarities of factors including average AP and standardized test scores, percentage of first-generation students, median family income, racial demographics and percentage of adults with professional jobs, according to College Board.
Beyond academic record, multiple other demographic characteristics and extracurricular experiences were also highlighted.
Online admissions materials note that the University has a holistic process that takes into account “participation in extracurricular activities, professional arts training, and evidence of leadership, awards, and service” as well as “educational and cultural diversity.”
Almost all of those categories, such as leadership in extracurriculars, artistic talent, academic and professional honors, cultural identity, and aspects of essays, were noted in at least one of the applications.
For extracurriculars, many evaluators noted, in particular, the number of years the student had been involved. Some also commented specifically on the diversity of the students’ activities as a positive, characterizing the students as well-rounded. One resume that received such a comment, for example, included journalism, religious activities and student government.
Several applications reviewed also referenced alumni family connections, income and parents’ educational levels, which aren’t factors listed in the main online materials as under consideration.
On one application, low income and parent-education level were specifically noted as extenuating factors. Several applications mentioned alumni connections both in the overall comments and as an extenuating factor.
Those three, as well as a number of other factors such as military service and being a scholarship athlete, are referenced in an appendix to the online materials, but not on the main site where factors like extracurriculars are listed.
A changing admissions environment
When evaluators look at applications overall, Sanders said, they place emphasis on understanding a prospective student’s individual situation and resources — what she termed “context.”
That context, she added, could come from a number of factors — aspects of the student’s personal background, their parent’s background, the school they went to, extracurriculars or a multitude of other experiences.
To understand the current admissions process of any public college in Michigan, it’s important to note that what applying those kind of factors means — and more specifically, which of them admissions offices can and can’t consider — has changed significantly over the past 12 years.
At the University, the basic structure of the current admissions system was first created in 2003 following a pair of Supreme Court decisions that found the University’s specific practice of awarding certain minority groups “points” in the admissions process was unconstitutional, but upheld the overall use of race as one of many factors.
However, in 2005 a coalition of interest groups began campaigning for a ballot measure to ban public colleges in Michigan from considering race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin entirely in their admissions process. Proposal 2 was passed by statewide referendum in 2006, requiring the change in all application cycles past December of that year.
For the University’s admissions process, the restrictions seem to have lent an increased focus to socioeconomic status and other measures of access to higher education — such as the cluster classifications of high schools as underrepresented or notations of average high school academics in applications reviewed — as evaluative factors.
Sanders noted that many colleges, even those not operating under the constraints of measures like Proposal 2, have begun to highlight information about students’ economic backgrounds as more data has become available.
She said at the University, that kind of information has become particularly useful because of the restraints on using other demographic factors.
“I think that schools and colleges have made the process more robust because that information is available to us now,” she said. “But (socioeconomic status) is really, for us, more important because we can’t use race or gender.”
She described ways socioeconomic status can be used when evaluating applications, giving the example of a student with strong grades but standardized test scores around the average, whose family might have faced a financial hardship in paying for the student to take the test more than once.
“The readers would take that into consideration in the evaluative process, recognizing that this is a student who, based upon the context of their school, may be one of the top students there,” she said. “It doesn’t necessarily make the decision for us, but it gives us context.”
Along with the cluster high schools and average high school academics noted in evaluative comments, several other questions about demographic factors — many tied in some ways to economic background — were also present in applications reviewed.
Those factors included gender, county, city, ethnicity, academic interest, residency, date of birth, birth country, highest level of education obtained by each parent, estimated gross income, number of dependents and whether or not the applicant was raised by a single parent.
Evaluators are instructed not to consider some of the answers, such as gender or ethnicity, because of Proposal 2. Other factors, namely state residency status, aren’t considered relevant for evaluating individual students.
But for many of the rest, such as family educational level, number of dependents, or single-parent status, Sanders said they’re further examples of ways the University works to understand an individual applicant’s situation.
“There are a lot of questions about, you know, parents and family members and background and some of that is to give us an idea of context for socioeconomic status, (for) support you have,” she said. “Did you have other family members that are in college that could provide support, a college-going culture?”
Many of the these demographic factors used to add context can also come into play at a later part of the admissions process — yield.
Yield, which occurs after all the applications have gone through the evaluative system in each application cycle, refers to the practice of determining how many and which students to offer admittance in order to secure a full — but not too full — freshman class. The final decision on an application file is based on both its rating and the yield assessment of how many students to offer admittance overall.
Because it occurs after evaluative process, documentation of this part of the process was not included in applications provided for review.
However, Sanders said, at this point, demographic factors are considered both for the applicant pool as an overall group and for individual applicants. For example, residency status becomes relevant as a statistic about the applicant pool as a whole because the overall residency statuses of the pool help inform how likely students are to attend the University if accepted.
But, especially as the decisions get tighter, not everyone in a particular rating can be offered admission, which requires ways to distinguish between applicants with the same rating. Characteristics noted in individual evaluations — such as family-education level or income — can then become relevant in deciding who makes the cut, aiding University initiatives to increase representation of certain groups.
“Even within (yield), we might look at additional information there,” Sanders said. “So the priorities of then looking at, ‘We’d really like to increase the number of students that are first generation or low income,’ so those things would come into play as another characteristic that could even hone in more the specific numbers of students that are offered admission.”
However, in response to a hypothetical scenario of two students with borderline ratings for admission, one first generation and the other not, Sanders said that factor wouldn’t necessarily move the decision in favor of the first generation student.
“It would depend on really all characteristics in the application,” she said.
Usage of this kind of demographic information in any part of the admissions process appears to differ at institutions across the state of Michigan.
In response to e-mailed questions, LaJoyce Brown, Wayne State University interim senior director of undergraduate admissions, wrote that WSU does not consider factors such as socioeconomic status or geographic area.
In contrast, Jason Cody, Michigan State University spokesman, wrote that at MSU “all factors other than race, gender and ethnic origin can be (and are) … used in the holistic application review process.”
Tracing the impact
It is fairly clear how the admissions office has changed its approach to evaluating applications in terms of the factors it considers. What’s less clear is what the past eight years have actually meant for prospective students, and, correspondingly, enrollment in general.
For multiple demographic factors still considered in the admissions process, namely those related to economic background, the changes are especially difficult to see because the University doesn’t collect data on them from the student body. However, limited statistics that do exist suggest both positive and negative shifts over the past decade.
In an e-mail, University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald wrote that the admissions office does not collect group metrics either on socioeconomic status or on high school attended, both of which are evaluative factors cited in applications reviewed.
“Admissions does not generate any reports that collect this information because they only use the information individually to assess individual admissions applications,” he wrote. “The same is true for the high school information you asked about. We have not need(ed) to pull that information together so there are no existing reports containing that information.”
Fitzgerald identified data from the University’s Office of Budget and Planning, which draws from information provided on the Federal Application for Student Aid, as the best existing source of information for income family distribution at the University. Students are only required to fill out the FAFSA if they are applying for financial aid, meaning that the data doesn’t necessarily correspond to the entirety of the student body.
Nonetheless, according to the OBP, the number of incoming students with family income distributions at both the top and bottom of the scale have both increased over the past decade, leading to a mixed picture of socioeconomic diversity.
Between 2003 and 2013, the percentage of incoming in-state freshmen with families earning $25,000 or less increased from 3 percent to 6 percent. For incoming out-of-state freshmen, the number remained constant at 4 percent. During the same time period, the percentage of incoming in-state freshmen with families earning more than $150,000 or who did not fill out the FAFSA decreased from 54 percent to 49 percent. However, for incoming out-of-state freshmen, the number jumped up to 76 percent from 68 percent.
For the factors banned from consideration, many of which the University is required to collect from the entire student body for federal reporting, the trend over the past years is much clearer.
According to numbers from the Office of the Registrar, Black-student enrollment has declined, both from its peak in 1996 at 9 percent and where it was in 2006, at 7.2 percent. Though the numbers aren’t entirely comparable because federal reporting guidelines changed in 2010, as of Fall 2014, Black-student enrollment had dropped to 4.63 percent. Numbers from the OBP, which include students who identify as more than one race, put the percentage at 5.83.
Data for gender has, in contrast, been more consistent. Women were roughly 48 percent of the University’s student population as of Fall 2007, according to the Office of the Registrar. In Fall 2014, they were roughly 47 percent.
Correlation doesn’t necessarily equal causation, and these shifts, both positive and negative, can’t be looked at in isolation. There are a multitude of other factors that could have impacted the numbers, such as nationwide factors like how many students apply to college, and also a slate of University initiatives launched in the past years to adapt to the new admissions environment, the earliest of which are just beginning to come to fruition.
Whether those numbers are here to stay is also an open question, especially given the Supreme Court’s decision last summer to uphold Proposal 2, and also University efforts, new iterations of which are still being actively purused.
Last year, the Office of the Provost released a report on a proposed new series of initiatives to address the drops in minority representation, complementing an initial post-Proposal 2 slate of programs launched in 2007. And capping off the 2014 report, University President Mark Schlissel is also expected to convene a campus-wide summit on diversity this fall.
For the evaluative process itself, though long the target of changes this past decade, the role it might play moving forward seems to be shaping up to be much more static.
Many of the new University initiatives launched thus far have been targeted not at the process itself, but at the steps that come before and after a student applies — outreach, recruitment, retention and climate.
For the process, Sanders said, a main emphasis and challenge is on the questions already in place — finding a balance between getting the information they want, while still creating an application students will fill out.
“We’re the only public in the state of Michigan currently that utilizes (the Common Application), so it puts us in a very different place in terms of how students see the process,” she said. “And so that’s why we do so many high school visits and college fairs, to really encourage families to see this as an opportunity to share information with us so we can make a good decision versus questions that we’re asking to be intrusive.”
Speaking to last summer’s decision on Proposal 2, Sanders noted that while big changes to what’s considered may not be an option, that push to educate about the factors they can look at is one they plan to continue.
“We have to continue to abide by the law,” she said in reference to the court decision. “So until we receive different instruction, which would be a decision from the High Court, we would not be able to make any adjustments. But we’re going to continue to work with students, high schools, community leaders, to make sure that all students, you know, in their application, present information they believe would be helpful and informative in helping us make holistic and fair decisions.”