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Philosophical Bases for Admissions Decisions

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As this analysis turns to admission criteria and how they ultimately come together in decision-making, readers are asked to consider the questions offered here in light of how they bear on individual campuses and how the system operates as a whole.



The posting below examines nine categories as the philosophical basis for college admissions decisions.  It is from Chapter 8, How Admissions Decisions Get Made, by Jerome A. Lucido, in the book Handbook of Strategic Enrollment Management, by Don Hossler, Bob Bontrager and Associates. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco. A Wiley Company. One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200, San Francisco, CA 94104-4594. www.wiley.comCopyright © 2015 by American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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Rick Reis

UP NEXT: A Promising Alternative to Grades



Tomorrow’s Academy

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Philosophical Bases for Admissions Decisions



The real value in spending time with the following nine categories is in the elucidation and evaluation of admission criteria and decision-making processes (Perfetto & College Entrance Examination Board, 1999). Which of these philosophical constructs operate at the institution? Which are most reflective of the mission?  Which are in play due to factors beyond the campus, such as financial conditions? How can these constructs lead to better alignment of admission practices with institutional mission? As this analysis turns to admission criteria and how they ultimately come together in decision-making, readers are asked to consider the questions offered here in light of how they bear on individual campuses and how the system operates as a whole.

Eligibility-Based Models

* Entitlement: Higher education is an inalienable right and should be made available to everyone.

* Open Access: College is a natural progression after high school and should be made available to everyone who is qualified.

Performance Based Models

* Meritocracy: Access to higher education is a reward for those who have been most academically successful.

* Character: Access to higher education is a reward for personal virtue, dedication, perseverance, community service, and hard work.

Student Capacity to Benefit Models

* Enhancement: The goal of higher education is to seek out and nurture talent.

* Mobilization: Higher education is the “great equalizer” and must promote social and economic mobility.

Student Capacity to Contribute Models

* Investment: Access to higher education should promote the greater good and further the development of society.

* Environmental/Institutional: The admissions selection process is designed to meet the enrollment goals and unique organizational needs of the admitting institution while promoting the overall quality of students’ educational experience.

* Fiduciary: Higher education is a business, and access must first preserve the institution’s fiscal integrity (Perfetto & College Entrance Examination Board, 1999, p. 5-7).

Unless an institution is fully open – for example, without criteria for admission – some level of academic achievement is needed for consideration for admission. Nearly all post-secondary educational options, by definition, require completion of high school and proof of graduation in the form of high school transcripts.  Beyond this, the array of criteria most frequently used for initial entry (freshman/first term admission) may include all or some of the following: rigor of high school coursework completed; grades earned and grade point average; rank-in-class; standardized test scores (SAT, ACT); scholastic and extracurricular honors, awards, accomplishments, and participation; personal statements and essays; and letters of recommendation (Blackburn, 1990; Camara & Kimmel, 2005; Ciompi, 1993).  For students transferring from one college to another, a review of all previous college work completed and grades received are the usual criteria.

In the United States, admissions officers focus heavy attention on freshman/first-year admission, so a closer look at the criteria most frequently considered and their role in the admission decision are discussed in the following sections.  Together, these factors provide the foundational information on which the admission decision rests.  Other factors, including student interviews in some segments of the private college sector, also contribute.

As readers begin their progression through the criteria most frequently considered, however, it is important to state at the outset that admission decision-makers should conduct regular validity studies to understand the contribution of the elements that they use in decision-making to the prediction of grade point average and persistence on the campus.  Some elements will contribute more to predictions of success than will others, and these elements may vary from campus to campus and over time (Young & Kobrin, 2001). Finally, it is equally important to state that some elements may be difficult to capture quantitatively, but this does not mean that they are not valuable.  New research on non-cognitive variables, for example, demonstrates their promise in predicting persistence in college and effectiveness in the workplace (Kyllonen, 2008).

High School Coursework   The bedrock of college admission decisions is the depth and breadth of the high school curriculum attempted and completed.  Indeed, movements to make educational curricula across states more uniform and rigorous are responses to broadening college access through better preparation. (For example, see Common Core’s State Standard Initiative website, “Preparing America’s students for success,” at  Statewide standards at public universities typically outline a pattern of courses that include a number of years of study in designated subject matter areas.  Although the number of years of study and the requirements in each subject area may vary, a typical array of such standards is as follows:

-       Four years of English

-       Three or four years of mathematics, including Algebra I and Algebra II

-       Three years of science, including one year of laboratory science

-       Two years of social studies, including American history and government

-       Two years of foreign language (taken in the same language)

-       One or two years of fine arts (not always required)

-       One or more years of electives from the above subject areas

The A-G requirements in California, for example, are an array of such requirements.  Generally, students who attempt and complete a pattern of coursework such as A-G or the preceding list are considered prepared for college-level coursework (University of California, 2013). Nonetheless, selective colleges often expect greater numbers of years of study within the subject matter areas and coursework at higher levels such as honors or Advanced Placement courses.  Further, particular majors may specify additional coursework or require flexibility in the pattern of coursework.  For example, engineering schools may require physics and advanced mathematics, while music schools will expect years of music study that may deter students from taking the full array of coursework in the preceding list.

Grades and Grade Point Average   The grades earned in each course, typically beginning in the ninth grade, are reviewed in admission decision-making for both eligibility (in the case that a C grade or better is required, for example) and for competitiveness.  Grades are most useful to determine the extent to which a student has met the expectations of the teacher and requirements of the course within each school’s context.  Grades have limitations in that they do not tell admission officers about the particular strengths and weaknesses of a student within a course; rather, they are an overall indicator of achievement through the duration of the course.  The grade point averages for a particular grading period, an academic year, and a high school career are fundamental indicators of student achievement over time.  Therefore, they may provide a useful comparative indicator of student competitiveness over an academic career.  Patterns, weaknesses, trends, and consistency are noted in the admission review.

Rank-in-Class   Rank-in-class is a mathematical calculation of a student’s academic achievement relative to other students in the class. In eligibility models such as those used to specify minimum requirements at public universities, class rank, for example ranking in the top half or top quarter of the class, is sometimes used as a threshold requirement.  In the selectivity model, when colleges evaluate student credentials within the context of their pool of applicants, a traditional way to compare applicants is to consider how well they have performed against their current set of peers. Class rank is a useful indicator of this construct.  However, this has become more difficult to ascertain in recent years as many secondary schools, in the belief that providing class rank disadvantages some of their students in the admission process, have ceased to provide class rank on high school transcripts.  As a result, a recent poll of the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC) showed that the influence of class rank on admission decisions has been diminishing in importance (Clinedinst, Hurley, & Hawkins, 2011).

Standardized Testing    National measures of aptitude, reasoning skill, and content mastery, including the SAT, ACT, and SAT Subject Tests, are utilized widely in college admissions.  Given the vast variation in high school opportunity, curriculum offerings, standards within courses, and grading practices, these assessments measure student achievement on educationally relevant constructs and place them on a national score distribution.  Standardized tests are useful for the purpose noted here, but they are not without complexity and controversy.  Indeed, there is widespread misuse of scores, including overreliance on them as measures of student quality on campus, in national rankings, and in comparing campuses. Space does not permit a longer discussion of these and other issues, but ample literature is available for investigation.  Additional discussion of standardized testing can be found later in the section, “Equity, Fairness, and the Place of Race as a Consideration.”

Application Information   The information and manner in which students present themselves on the application for admission provide numerous additional opportunities to evaluate the skills, level of engagement, and personal qualities of students.   Academic honors and awards, school and community involvement, leadership positions held, work and volunteer experience, and more provide admission decision-makers with valuable insight into what, how, where, and how deeply students are engaged in pursuits outside the classroom (Blackburn, 1990; Ciompi, 1993).

Essays   Essays and short-answer questions are elements of many selective admission processes. What students write, and how well they write it, is assessed by admission evaluators to gain insight into how students think, what they are passionate about, and how well they express themselves.

Recommendations   Counselor and teacher recommendations provide insight into a student’s academic and personal strengths, contributions to school and community, and personal qualities, and they can explain irregularities that may be evident in an academic record.  Recommendations are a valuable asset in understanding the student’s role in the school setting and in gaining a comprehensive understanding of the student.

Outside the Lines: Special Considerations and Claims on Admission Spaces

Foundational factors are important in making admission decisions, but they are supplemented based upon a variety of factors including institutional educational objectives, financial considerations, and external influences on the campus.  Indeed, there many claims on admission spaces at a given college or university.  A brief look at some of these factors is needed prior to addressing how the many factors contribute to decision-making.

Special Talent

Among the objectives of colleges and universities is the nurturance of special talent. As a result, students who possess exceptional talent in areas such as music, art, theatre, dance, and creative writing may, and often do, receive consideration for their talent as they populate the programs designed to nurture them.


Athletics could be included in the special talent area – there is special talent nurtured and demonstrated in this arena to be sure.  However, it is primarily extracurricular programs rather than academic ones that nurture this set of talents, and student athletes enroll in programs across the curriculum.  Special consideration is applied to the applications of prospective student athletes to fill the rosters of athletic programs for reasons that include student athlete development, school pride and affiliation, competitive stature, alumni engagement, fundraising, and student recruitment.


The educational value of student diversity has been established in U.S. Supreme Court cases (such as Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 1978), educational research, and university mission and purpose statements (Bowen & Bok, 1998; Milem, 2003).  Although a topic of national debate, considerations of student diversity are part of admission decision-making in the selective admission model. These considerations include family income, first-generation college students, geographic diversity, and cultural diversity.  Consideration of race in the admission process has been before the Supreme Court in four cases to date (one is under consideration as this chapter is being written).  In general, these cases were brought by white students who claimed that they had been denied admission even though their test scores and grades were better than those of minority students who had been admitted.  In each case, the consideration of race as one factor among many in the admission process has been affirmed by the courts (Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 1978; Grutter v. Bollinger, 2013) or left unchanged and sent back to lower courts for further review (Fisher, 2013). A more thorough discussion of the courts and race-conscious admission follows.


The United States is a prime destination for higher education across the globe (Fischer, 2013). Further, globalization has emerged as an educational goal in American higher education (Lucido, 2000). Additionally, U.S. institutions of higher education have increasingly viewed international students as a source of tuition revenue (Stephens, 2013).  Accordingly, international students are afforded places on campus as an essential resource to foster cross-cultural understanding, based on their academic ability and their ability to contribute to financial stability and sustainability.  Therefore, although international students add to the cultural and educational diversity of a campus, they are sought for reasons that extend beyond diversity.


In the selectivity model, students with a history of family enrollment at a given institution are often given additional consideration.  This preference can be substantial in highly selective universities (Bowen & Bok, 1998). Moreover, it is a staple of private college culture and occurs in some selective public campuses as well (Hemel, 2007; Kahlenberg, 2010a). The practice, however, is not without critics; it has been attacked as “affirmative action for the rich.”  Indeed, legacy admission is cited as benefiting more students than race-conscious affirmative action policies and disproportionately benefiting wealthy white students (Kahlenberg, 2010b).

Influence of Donors/Legislators/and Other Pressure Points

An analysis of admission factors would be incomplete without mention of pressure points that can be placed on admission decisions.  These include the influence of donors and legislators who hold the purse strings that support higher education. Here the press has revealed legislative intervention (Cohen, 2013), and others have documented that children and relations of prominent and potential donors can receive a leg up in college admission (Golden, 2006).

Financial Considerations: Full Payers and Net Tuition Revenue

Being aware of student and family financial resources is not a new phenomenon in college admission.  However, as public sources of support for higher education have become a smaller share of institutional revenue, colleges and universities have become more tuition-dependent.  Increasingly, admission recruitment strategies target students who can pay all or a substantial part of their full college costs.  Accordingly, family resources have become an increasing factor in college admission selection.  Need-blind admission, where admission decision-makers are unaware of family resources, is practiced only among a very well-resourced tier of institutions (Kiley, 2012).  Being need-aware, when family resources can be considered in decision-making, is the normative practice.



Blackburn, J.A. (1990). Assessment and Evaluation in Admissions. New York: College Entrance Examination Board.

Bowen, W.G., & Bok, D.C. (1998). The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Camara, W.J., & Kimmel, E.W. (2005).  Choosing Students: Higher Education Admissions Tools for the 21st Century. Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates.

Ciompi, K. (1993). How Colleges Choose Students. New York: College Entrance Examination Board.

Clinedinst, M.W., Hurley, S.F., Hawkins, D.A. (2011). 2011 State of College Admission. Alexandria, VA: National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Cohen, J. (2013). U. of I. Tracking Attempts to Influence Admissions. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from

Fischer, K. (2013). U.S. Will be Fastest Growing Foreign-Student Destination, Report Predicts. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, 570 U.S., 133 (2013).

Golden, D. (2006). The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges – and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Grutter v. Bollinger, 539. U.S. 306 (2003).

Hermel, D. (2007). Leave Behind (a) Legacy.  The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved from

Kahlenberg, R.D. (2010a). Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions. New York: The Century Foundation Press.

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Kyllonen, P. (2008). The Research Behind the ETS Personal Potential Index (PPI). Background paper, Educational Testing Service.

Lucido, J.A. (2000). Managing Academe: The AAU Provosts. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Arizona.

Milem, J.F. (2003). The Educational Benefits of Diversity: Evidence from Multiple Sectors. In M. Chang, D. Witt, J. Jones, & K. Hakuta (Eds.), Compelling Interest: Examining the Evidence on Racial Dynamics in Higher Education. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

Perfetto, G., & College Entrance Examination Board (1999). Toward a Taxonomy of the Admissions Decision-Making Process: A Public Document Based on the First and Second College Board Conferences on Admissions Models. New York: The College Board.

Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 (1978).

Stephens, Paul (2013, October). International Students: Separate but Profitable. Washington Monthly. (

University of California (2013). A-G Subject Requirements. Retrieved December 28, 2013, from

Young, J., & Kobrin, J. (2001). Differential Validity, Differential Prediction, and College Admission Testing: A Comprehensive Review and Analysis. New York: College Entrance Examination Board.