Admission Standards: Up to Standard or Substandard?

Admission Standards: Up to Standard or Substandard? Part 2 of a 3-Part Series

By Evan Jones
April 2011

This is Part 2 of a 3-part series on the current state of the college admissions process and alternatives to traditional college education such as online or blended courses.

We interviewed a panel of professionals consisting of several high school and college guidance counselors, a college coach, and a motivational speaker:

The previous article in this series dealt with how difficult it was to get into college both in terms of standards and affordability. For this article, we asked our experts the following question: “Do you believe that those criteria (admissions) are flawed, functional, or inconsistent?”

Falling Standards?

Any discussion of college admissions standards must begin with high school. There is a popular perception that high-school standards have slipped considerably. Yet there has been much effort to combat this notion over the past few years. High schools assign more homework and have made efforts to go back to the basics. The Three Rs have made a something of a comeback, and there has been an increased emphasis on improvement in standardized tests.

A far higher percentage of children go to both high school and college these days. Therefore it comes as no surprise that the standards may not be up to those of the elite a century ago. But there is no question that the literacy rate is higher now than it was in the past. In 1870, 20% of adults were illiterate. By 1979, the number was down to under 1%. In 1870 only 80,000 were enrolled in secondary schools. There were only 9,000 college degrees granted that year. In 1990, there were 11 million secondary school students. Over 1.5 million graduated from college with bachelor’s degrees.1

There is an increasing workplace demand for formal education. As a result, there are more and more students applying to colleges each year. Demand is up.

On the other hand, there are more and more colleges available. Supply is up. A sizable part of this is due to the large increase in for profit and online colleges. It can be argued that over five million college students being enrolled in at least one online college course2 has relieved some of the pressure placed on traditional colleges and enabled them to expand the parameters of admission beyond a strict adherence to standardized testing.

Nonetheless, some argue that aspects of education have been “dumbed down,” since then. Derrick Hays thinks the problem comes from the bottom up, not the top down. “The criteria to get into college is functional, however, students are not receiving the preparation in high school which is causing them not to be able to meet the criteria.”

This is a fairly grim assessment considering that there also appears to have been considerable grade inflation over the past two decades. “From 1991 to 2007, the average GPA at American private universities rose from 3.09 to 3.30. The average GPA at public institutions rose from 2.93 to 3.11. Of course, there was a lot of inflation before 1991, as well. Rojstaczer estimates that the average GPA across all institutions of higher education in the 1930s was 2.35.”3

Given that college standards may have fallen, if high schools were failing to prepare students, it would speak rather poorly for the current level of college preparation. And that is the other side of the coin. Yes, there is no question that there has been a great improvement in basic literacy. But has there been a sacrifice at the higher end of the spectrum? Statistics on basic literacy and enrollment do not answer this uncomfortable question.

1 Tom Snyder, ed., 120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Adult Literacy, U.S. Department of Education Institute of Educational Sciences, 1993

2 I. Elaine Allen, Jeff Seaman, Class Differences: Online Education in the United States, 2010, Babson Survey Research Group, The Sloan Consortium, Nov. 2010, p. 2

3 Through Grade Inflation, B+ is the New Average, Education Reporter, #282, July 2009