Three Encouraging Takeaways from the State of College Admissions

December 12, 2019

From Harvard’s race-conscious admissions policy to the Lori Loughlin admissions scandal, higher education admission policies have been second-guessed and re-evaluated for much of the year. But a National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) survey of over 447 four-year institutions offers some insight into the trends governing these policies. Three trends in particular offer some encouragement on the elusive and sometimes controversial college admissions process.

1. High School Grades Matter Most

Want to get into college? Get good grades. According to the NACAC survey, 75 percent of colleges attributed “considerable importance” to high school grades when making admissions decisions. That’s up from 52 percent of colleges in 2008.

This is encouraging, especially in light of research showing that high-school grades consistently predict college performance. In 2018, an American Enterprise Institute report found that among students with similar SAT or ACT scores, those with higher high-school GPAs are more likely to graduate from college. This makes sense, the authors note, because earning good grades in high school requires the same disciplines—showing up to class, turning in assignments on time, taking quizzes, etc.—that students need in college.

Another study evaluated the relationship between high-school grades and college completion for 17,753 Chicago Public School students. The study found that grades strongly related to rates of college graduation. Students with high-school GPAs less than 1.5 had a 20 percent probability of graduating, but students with GPAs of 3.75 or higher had an 80 percent probability of graduating.

These findings suggest that colleges are right to focus on high-school grades when making admissions decisions and that students looking to attend college should pay attention to high-school performance.

2. Tests Still Matter, But to Fewer Schools

According to the NACAC, fewer colleges depend on SAT/ACT scores when making admissions decisions than in years past.

In 2011, most (59 percent) of schools reported that standardized test scores were an important part of their admissions process, according to the NACAC. Since then, the number of schools holding that view dropped to 54 percent in 2016, to 52 percent in 2017, and to 46 percent today.

These drops are consistent with research questioning the predictive power of ACT/SAT tests. A 2014 study, for example, examined the performance of 122,916 students at 33 colleges and universities. The study found that students with strong high-school GPAs generally performed well in college despite moderate standardized test scores. However, students with weak GPAs and strong test scores earned lower college GPAs and graduated less often. Researchers concluded that high-school GPA thus strongly and consistently correlates to college cumulative GPA, while standardized test scores are much less consistent predictors of performance.

Another study found that SAT scores can be misleading. The study found that at 16 percent of colleges, performance predictions based on SAT math scores proved inaccurate. Similarly, when researchers compared black and white applicants’ scores on SAT critical reading, they found predictions were wrong at about 20 percent of colleges.

The NACAC’s findings suggest that while many schools still rely on standardized tests, they are rightfully becoming less popular.

3. Race/Ethnicity Not as Significant As You Might Think

Despite recent controversy around Harvard’s race-conscious admissions policies, NACAC’s survey revealed that most colleges (58 percent) do not consider race as a factor in admissions.

This position is not only popular—73 percent of Americans believe that colleges should not make admissions decisions based on race—but also reasonable in light of the challenges race-based policies have introduced. Law professor Richard Sander and legal journalist Stuart Taylor, Jr. found, for example, that affirmative action policies have resulted in minority students enrolling in colleges and universities where their academics put them toward the bottom of the class. As a result, they earned lower grades, avoided challenging subjects like science or engineering, and lost self-confidence, causing them to abandon their career aspirations.

Affirmative action policies have also triggered questions around self-worth. In his autobiography, My Grandfather’s Son, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote:

I simply took it for granted that Yale [Law School] was giving me a break because I was poor (and especially since that poverty was in part due to racial discrimination), in the same way that other students were given preference because they came from wealthy families or had parents who’d gone to Yale.

But before long, Thomas wrote, “I realized that those blacks who benefited from affirmative action were being judged by a double standard. As much as it stung to be told that I’d done well in the seminary despite my race, it was far worse to feel that I was now at Yale because of it.”

While college admissions policies continue to be questioned, the NACAC’s findings suggest that, at least in some ways, higher education is learning from its mistakes and is improving its admissions processes for tomorrow’s applicants.

Kristiana Bolzman is a Catalyst Policy Fellow and a Young Voices Contributor. She studied Politics and Journalism at Hillsdale College, graduated from The Heritage Foundation's Young Leaders program, was accepted as a Generation Liberty Fellow at the State Policy Network, and has served at Fox News and on Capitol Hill. Her research and writing focuses on education reform and the preservation of civil liberties.
Catalyst articles by Kristiana Bolzman