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College Admissions is Changing: Prepare with Guidance from Ben Corpus

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College Admissions is Changing: Prepare with Guidance from Ben Corpus

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The following is an article by Ben Corpus, Ph.D., a higher education executive well-versed in the current and evolving state of college admissions in the United States.

In the last few years, higher education has been forced to evolve faster than it would like, but still slower than the market and industry would prefer. Academics face demographic markets that are simultaneously declining and changing, record-breaking student debt, sharper accountability from policymakers, and a new digital paradigm that catapulted many institutions into the 21st Century because of Covid. Remote teaching exposed the realities of learning and academic proficiency and has significantly impacted the college admissions process.

The Wall Street Journal recently wrote an article highlighting admissions challenges set off by the pandemic as standardized tests, the ACT and SAT, grapple with an existential moment. 

Colleges Dropped the SAT and ACT

One of the many adjustments college admissions offices had to make was to go test-optional - making the SAT and ACT not a requirement for admission but an option. Approximately 72% of institutions, including the Ivies, went test-optional for the Fall of 2020 and 2021. Some even extended it for the Fall 2022 class. The University of California, the largest and one of the most esteemed public systems in the country (second to the State University System (SUS) of Florida), dropped tests through 2025. Still, some institutions ended the practice altogether.

Going test-optional for colleges with less than a 50% acceptance rate had results that raised some eyebrows. These institutions saw an average increase in applications of 21%. As a result, this allowed colleges to widen their pool and craft their class with more options. But it also meant that the work of admissions counselors and committees became increasingly subjective as extracurriculars, essays, and recommendations were more heavily weighed. This change was on top of increased reliance on the rigor of class schedule, AP exam results, and most importantly, the high school GPA.  

The article in the Wall Street Journal also emphasized the high school GPA as an alternative to high-stakes standardized tests in the admissions process. College admissions officers, and many high school counselors, couldn't agree more; however, students and parents need more context and some nuance if the advice is to be useful.

The HS GPA

For some parents and students, there is now one less stress-induced metric for some selective colleges, but it now means increased pressure to achieve a strong GPA.

As college admissions officials already know, academic achievement in college involves cognitive competence as well as self-regulatory competencies, both of which have proven to be determined by high school grades. College officials have drawn correlations between higher success on campus and a student's ability to self-manage, cope with academic pressure based on a level of proven classroom proficiency. 

Even for test-optional institutions, a strong high school GPA is not enough. What matters more, certainly now, are the grades in specific courses. Academic proficiency demonstrated in core science, and math courses is critical. Strong grades in algebra I and II/geometry/trig, pre-calculus, and calculus will serve a student's application portfolio well for top institutions, success in majors, and placement into careers that are in huge demand and pay very well.

A Strong GPA Requires More Focus in the Pandemic Aftermath

The pandemic led to isolation which led to a drop in students' ability to focus. Social distancing and quarantining led to more insolation than any student wanted. While it pushed some institutions to add or sharpen online courses, it also provided even more online distractions. Students were already spending seven hours a day on their mobile phones just before the outbreak and more than twice the amount of time watching online videos compared to 2015. 

Reduced motivation and digital distractions spanned the globe for many students. In Germany, they found that time spent with TV, computer games, and mobile phones for students increased by 5.2 hours per day, while school activities were halved from 7.4 hours a day to 3.6. Students and parents have to find a way to recalibrate how they increase quality time on academic tasks.

GPAs and Grade Inflation

There is additional context concerning a focus on the GPA as an alternative to tests. High school grade inflation has become an increasing challenge for college admissions offices over the last two decades, particularly for higher-income communities.

High school grade inflation is very real, and national studies have proven the point. For example, one study found that 19% of Algebra-I students who received A's and 57% of students who received B's failed a state-wide exam that determined whether or not they were college-ready or proficient in the subject. In STEM, proficiency in algebra is critical for success in calculus; college engineering bachelor's degrees require at least up to Calculus III.

But My Kid is Great

While grade inflation contributes to parental beliefs that their kids are great, many parents didn't need to see good grades to believe this. The Lake Wobegon Effect has taken hold of some parents who see their children as well above average. In 2017, a survey of public school parents found that 90% believed their children were performing at or above grade level in both math and reading, and only 8% believed their child was performing below average. These assumptions lead to expectations that aren't always met at the college level, leaving students and parents to walk uncomfortably through a reality tunnel of cognitive dissonance during freshman year, with some displaced blame landing in email boxes of college professors. 

So what are students and parents to do? 

1. Focus on proficiency in core subjects. Genuinely know what you don't know, and own it. Aggressively and methodically fill those gaps, as there may be times when you will know what you've mastered more than the grade you've been awarded. Practice for state-wide exams, review college syllabi for required topics, and go after your weak points and gaps through programs like Khan Academy. Or, get a live, online tutor for one-on-one sessions with innovative platforms like Knack, essentially the Uber for trained and talented college-level tutors.

2. Prepare for and take AP exams where possible. More than 3 million students in the US take at least one of 34 Advanced Placement exams each year. These exams provide a framework for high school teachers to teach introductory college-level courses that are highly credible. While not all schools offer AP exams, if your school does, take AP Calc (AB and BC if possible) and as many more as you can within reason. Otherwise: study on a regular and disciplined schedule - and start asap; practice with previous AP Tests and seek assistance when you get stuck.

3. What about dual enrollment? Meh. There is a good deal of variability and uneven outcomes. These are often quite appealing to parents and students, but my experience informs my preference: IB, AICE, and AP over dual enrollment, when possible. 

4. Build an extracurricular portfolio that has common threads or that builds off each other. Don't just join a club, work to lead one or three, or design and launch one that never existed at your school before, and focus on adding value for your peers and your school, making sure there is an aspiration that aligns with who you are or who you wish to be. 

Gaining admission to a student's aspirant institution will require more focus and attention than many were able to muster over the past 18 months. Given the changing landscape in college admissions, students must gain academic proficiency and strong grades in core academic courses, not just a good overall high school GPA.

About Ben Corpus

Ben Corpus is a higher education executive and consultant with more than 20 years of proven admissions, financial aid, strategic planning, diversity, and student affairs experience. Currently, Dr. Corpus is the Vice Provost for Enrollment at Florida Polytechnic University, Florida's most selective, public STEM university. He was also Vice Provost for Enrollment Management at the University of Texas at Austin, Vice President for Enrollment Management & Student Affairs at Baruch College, Vice President for Enrollment and Student Affairs at Hostos Community College and Chief of Staff to the President at Plattsburgh State University. 

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