ROBINSON: UNC shouldn’t lower admissions standards

At its April meeting, the UNC Board of Governors will consider a policy to change admissions standards at the 16 universities in the UNC System. Governors should weigh the evidence carefully before making a decision.

Right now, in order to be eligible for admission at a UNC institution, students must score at least 880 on the SAT or 17 on the ACT as well as graduating with a GPA of 2.5. The proposed new policy would be either/or approach for admissions. The new policy would require a minimum GPA of 2.5 or an SAT score of 1010 (or ACT score of 19).

The policy is a de facto reduction in standards. Very few students with a GPA lower than 2.5 manage to score at least 1010 on the SAT. This means that for a very large majority of students, GPA becomes the only relevant measure for admission.

Unfortunately, a GPA of 2.5 is already a very low bar. A recent study by the Fordham Institute, based on North Carolina public school students, revealed the failure of high school grades to accurately measure learning. It showed that just 29% of C students in Algebra I reached “proficiency” on the end-of-course test. Relying only on a GPA of 2.5 (the equivalent of a C+) is not sufficient to ensure that students are college-ready.

Moving to an either/or policy for admissions will mean that more students enter UNC System institutions unprepared for college-level work. The new pool students who would be eligible for admission to UNC schools under an either/or policy are those who cannot score at least an 880 on the SAT or a 17 on the ACT. Those scores are already the bare minimum for student success. The organization that administers the ACT considers 21 the minimum score for “college-readiness.”

For many reasons, continuing to use both standardized testing and GPA will yield the best student body for UNC schools.

Firstly, high school grade inflation is pervasive. According to a study conducted by Michael Hurwitz and Jason Lee in 2017, almost half (47%) of high school seniors in 2016 had an A average, a percentage that had risen from 38.9% in 1998. High school grades are continually increasing.

Despite the continued allegations that standardized testing is racist, going test-optional would actually hurt low-income and minority students. According to a recent report by the University of California System, grade inflation is especially rampant at schools with mostly high-income students.

Most importantly, though, is that two measures are better than one. Multiple studies show that using GPA and SAT (or ACT) scores is more predictive of student success than GPA alone. Nathan Kuncel and Paul Sackett, who are professors of industrial-organizational psychology at the University of Minnesota, explained in the Wall Street Journal in March of 2018:

High-school and college grades are excellent measures… But we all know that a grade-point average of 3.5 doesn’t mean the same thing across schools or even for two students within a school. As high-school GPAs continue to go up because of grade inflation, having the common measure provided by admissions test scores is useful.

In the same article, Kuncel and Sacket debunk many of the criticisms leveled at standardized tests. They note that standardized tests have proven to be good predictors of student grades all the way through college “as well as the level of courses students are likely to take.” They also predict outcomes after college and success in the real world.

Beginning in 2011, the UNC system slowly increased minimum admissions requirements. Those requirements helped to ensure that students were ready for college-level work. It was successful in practice. Graduation rates and retention rates increased across the state. UNC should continue in this direction. Keep admissions standards high.