What is Holistic Admissions, and How Does it Affect College Enrollment?

Posted By Eliana Osborn on January 28, 2016 at 11:25 am
What is Holistic Admissions, and How Does it Affect College Enrollment?
The University of Texas, Austin, defendant in recent case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on affirmative action and holistic admissions

The Supreme Court recently heard (for the second time) arguments about affirmative action being used as a part of Texas college admissions.  There are a variety of different terms used to talk about how this is done, many of which are based on previous SCOTUS decisions.  Today, most campuses call race-aware admissions “holistic,” meaning that more than just transcripts and test scores are taken into consideration.

The University of Texas-Austin, the school involved in the SCOTUS case, describes their admissions procedures on their website.  Certain requirements are inviolable for everyone: how many credits an applicant must have in language arts, foreign language, mathematics, etc.  The term “holistic” comes into play when explaining how applications are reviewed.  Many factors are involved in how acceptance is determined individually.  Listed considerations include record of achievement, essays, letters of recommendation, special circumstances, and test scores.

One complaint about holistic admissions is the subjective nature of the process.  Some say that any given application package could be read differently by admissions officers.  One day, a review could grant enrollment and the next it might not for the same application.  Commentary in The Chronicle of Higher Education calls for more transparency in the application process, so that students know exactly what colleges are looking for.

Realistically, however, all admissions is subjective, even if rubrics or point values are assigned to different components.  When many students hold similar qualifications, GPA and test scores are no longer sufficient for determining who gets a place in a freshman class.

Student perception of holistic admissions is a concern, leading to the SCOTUS case in which University of Texas applicant Abigail Fisher alleged that she was denied admission unlawfully.  “What is even more interesting is the beliefs of UT students. The black and Hispanic students interviewed by the New York Times believed that the holistic admissions program helped affluent white candidates, while the white and Asian students thought that it helped black and Hispanic applicants,” reports the Chronicle.

The Association of American Medical Colleges endorses holistic admissions and explains how the system works: “The initiative’s Experiences-Attributes-Academic Metrics (E-A-M) model translates that concept into a useful tool and provides admissions staff and committee members with a shared framework for thinking broadly about diversity, identifying mission-based criteria that take into account the whole applicant, and spark thinking about applicants as future physicians, rather than merely as prospective students.”  In the specific circumstance of doctors, thinking about more than test scores makes sense – considering the final outcome of the training instead of just what an applicant looks like on paper.

SCOTUS will rule on UT-Austin admissions in several months.  If they determine holistic admissions to be unconstitutional, many colleges around the country will have to rethink the processes they have in place.  Issues of diversity concern not just race but also socioeconomic status, academic strengths, and life experience.  Factors like that will always be more difficult to quantify than numbers on a page.

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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