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Ryan Johnson, Published August 27 2012

What does it take to get in? College admission standards 'widely relaxed,' says new North Dakota chancellor

FARGO - Hundreds of freshmen on the campuses of North Dakota State University and the University of North Dakota this fall didn’t meet the universities’ own admissions requirements – but they were still enrolled and registered for classes.

North Dakota University System Chancellor Hamid Shirvani said of NDSU’s 2,515 freshmen, about one in 15 – or 6.9 percent – earned a composite ACT score of 18 or lower. That’s well below the university’s required score of 21 or higher for automatic admission.

The rate of low test scores is even higher at UND, which requires a minimum score of 18 for automatic acceptance. About 7.2 percent of UND’s 2,437 freshmen enrolled and registered as of Thursday morning scored 18 or lower on the standardized test that has a top score of 36; the national average is 21.1.

“The admission standards are widely relaxed,” Shirvani said, a statement backed up by other statistics from the state’s flagship universities and something he’s working to address with a proposal to enact strict new requirements to become a student at NDSU or UND.

But officials from both universities said two things are crucial in the admissions process – providing access for education to as many students as possible and having the flexibility to determine which students are likely to be successful in college.

Optional requirements

As public institutions, both universities are instructed by the state’s university system to require applicants to have completed 16 units of core classes in English, math, lab science and social studies during high school.

Other than that mandate, NDSU and UND can set their own guidelines on which prospective students will make the cut.

To gain automatic admission at NDSU, students need to earn at least a 21 on the ACT and have a high school grade-point average of 2.5 or higher.

UND, meanwhile, considers students based on an “admission chart” with five levels that give them a chance to get in, even if they did poorly in one measure. For example, an applicant with a GPA of 3.5 or higher can be automatically admitted with an ACT score as low as 18, while someone who scored 22 or higher on the test could be accepted with a 2.25 GPA.

If they don’t meet the cutoff, applicants still have a chance of being accepted.

Admission Director Jobey Lichtblau said NDSU further reviews these students’ transcripts, especially their GPA in core classes like math, science and English. They could be denied, accepted or become a “conditional admit” – meaning they’re limited to 13 credits their first semester to make sure they can do well at the college level.

Vice President for Student Affairs Lori Reesor said that during the past two falls, UND sent between 7 and 9 percent of its applications to a committee for further review. By the time classes started, 3 to 4 percent of the freshmen these two semesters were accepted by the committee, not automatic guidelines.

Concordia College doesn’t follow “absolutes” when considering prospective students, Dean of Admissions Scott Ellingson said, and there is no official cutoff for automatic admission because all applications are reviewed by the college staff. But 96 percent of its students come from the top half of their high school class, and three-quarters score between a 21 and 28 on the ACT.

“Concordia for its history has really been interested in strong, strong academics,” he said. “But at the same time, we take a lot of pride in taking many students where they’re at and making them better and stronger so that you don’t have to be in the top 5 percent of your class.”

There are other big differences between the public UND and NDSU and private Concordia – including the graduation rate.

Of the three, UND was the most selective about applicants in 2011, accepting 71 percent of potential freshmen. NDSU sent acceptance letters to 86 percent of its applicants, while Concordia had an 81 percent acceptance rate.

But 62 percent of Concordia’s full-time undergraduates who started in 2005 earned a degree within four years. Just 23 percent of NDSU and UND students who started at the same time finished their studies within four years, and 54 percent had a degree after six years.

Time for change?

UND revamped its admission requirements in 2005, establishing the current five-tiered chart to grant automatic admission.

Before that, the university had a guideline similar to the one that has been in place at NDSU since 1993.

President Dean Bresciani said it’s “absolutely” a good time to revisit NDSU’s policy, something that Shirvani’s proposal would do by setting consistent requirements at the state’s two research universities. His plan would weigh a prospective student’s high school class rank, GPA and core classes completed as well as their ACT score. Each factor would be given a score, and if the total is above a set value, the student would be accepted.

“But modestly raising them only elevates the expectation for performance of our prospective students while they’re in high school, and obviously if they elevate their performance in high school, they’re more likely to elevate their performance in college as well,” Bresciani said.

He said the admissions process is “very tricky” because officials can look for students who are strongly prepared, but test scores and GPA can’t determine who will actually earn a degree.

“It’s part art and part science, and if anybody had it perfectly right, everybody else would be doing it,” he said.

UND President Robert Kelley said as a state-supported research university, it’s important for the school to provide as much “open access” as possible while maintaining a high level of quality. That means officials need some flexibility in the admissions process, he said.

“The bottom line for us is we want our students to succeed,” he said.

High hopes

Minnesota State University Moorhead offers students two ways of being automatically admitted – earning an ACT score of 21 or above, or ranking in the top half of their high school class and getting at least a 17 on the ACT.

Like UND and NDSU, students who don’t meet these guidelines could still be accepted by a committee after further review.

President Edna Szymanski said that individual review process is important because it helps the university admit students who don’t test well but otherwise have a good chance of success. But too much flexibility can be a bad thing, she said.

“It’s not your standards so much as how much you adhere to them because every university will have standards, but they also have a way that they can take in students who don’t meet their standards,” she said.

Szymanski has made big changes to the process already, including closing the Corrick Center for at-risk students two years ago. She said the center had an important role when first established, but Moorhead has since gained a Minnesota State Community and Technical College campus that is a better fit for these students.

MSUM referred 434 applicants this year to the community college, which already had a focus on remedial education and is cheaper to attend, she said. If they do well enough there, they can apply to transfer to MSUM.

“If you admit students, you want them to be able to succeed,” she said. “Bringing in students who don’t have that high of a probability to succeed, in my mind, that’s wrong.”

Szymanski said something needed to be done to address the poor graduation rate – just 45 percent of full-time students who started in 2005 had a degree within six years.

“It’s criminal, but it’s been that way around the country,” she said. “We haven’t had a significant conversation about success. The metrics have always been on enrollment, not on success.”

Even after the changes, about 15 percent of MSUM’s freshmen this fall were admitted through the review process after not meeting the automatic acceptance requirements, said Interim Admissions Director Sarah Nissen.

Shirvani said it would take at least four years to make a “dent” in North Dakota’s low graduation rates if the Board of Higher Education approves the changes. But he said something needs to be done, especially as he aims to advance NDSU and UND to the next level.

He has set a goal to get both universities into the American Association of Universities, an elite group of 63 top research universities in the country.

“We have the capability for both of our institutions to be in that level,” he said. “But we have to start from our input, which is the students, and we have to really be honest and transparent with our students.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587