The benefits of a holistic approach to university entry
LEFTFIELD:The launch of a pioneering feasibility study in admissions is something that could be transformative for Ireland and is one that is vitally important for its future. The adoption of broader criteria for college admission – using a process called holistic admissions – will send a clear message to the young people of Ireland that the gates of Trinity and all universities are open wider than ever before to those who bring excellence in all its forms.
Trinity is the right university to run this study on behalf of the sector. As the highest ranked university and the one that superficially benefits most from the existing system, it has the moral authority, even the moral obligation, to attempt something new.
Make no mistake about it: the stakes are high. Every country must do everything in its power to make the most of the talents of all its young people. Not only is this the right thing for any just society to do: it is imperative for economic success. In the United States, students from the poorest economic backgrounds are seven times less likely to graduate from college than those from the most affluent families. It is not lack of promise or talent, but the lack of a level playing field that produces this unhappy result.
The battle for America’s moral and economic future will be won or lost in our classrooms, especially those serving less affluent students in inner cities and rural areas. Perhaps one could say the same for Ireland.
There is no nation that can boast a level playing field for students from poor and modest economic backgrounds when it comes to standardised testing for college admission. Selecting students solely on the results of such testing unfairly handicaps a large segment of society. Affluent students have greater access to secondary schools that prepare them better for these tests. Affluent students have the money to repeat senior year if they are not satisfied with test results. Affluent students also have the money to spend on grinds.
Two questions worth pondering. If a student who has had every possible advantage in preparing for an examination like the Leaving Certificate scores a bit higher than one who had no such advantages, does the higher scorer really have more potential? Should a few points on an exam that was not taken on a level playing field severely alter one’s life chances?
Holistic admission takes into account everything about an individual. It does not rely only on a rigid points system to award places at university because to do so ignores the often unequal contexts in which the results were obtained. And while it evaluates students’ past achievements, holistic admission focuses more on what students will do in the future.
Academic achievement as measured by standardised testing is important, but it is just one of many factors in choosing students for a university. Relying on testing alone can emphasise rote learning and conformity at the expense of creativity, intellectual curiosity, love of learning and innovation.
Standardised tests are used in the context of other academic information such as daily work in the classroom over a long period of time. Attention is paid to how students have performed academically within their secondary schools – just as with the Relative Performance Rank component in the feasibility study.
With this study, Trinity is sending a powerful message that with hard work anything is possible, including admission to Trinity or to any university in the world.At Harvard over the past number of years we have had 30 per cent increase in the number of students from poor and modest economic backgrounds. They now comprise about 25 per cent of our undergraduate student body.
Universities around the world are undergoing rapid changes. Their traditional roles of creating new knowledge of all kinds and educating leaders for old, new, and yet-to-be-imagined professions are in the process of being redefined. More than ever, universities must do everything they can to be the engines of opportunity they aspire to be.
* William R Fitzsimmons is the dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard and was the guest speaker at the launch of the feasibility study in admissions