Wave of Universities Boosts Standards for Entering Freshmen

By Mark Pitsch — May 15, 1991 10 min read
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Continuing a trend triggered by calls for tougher academic requirements during the mid-1980’s, a new wave of colleges and universities has taken steps this year to tighten their admissions standards.

Much of the activity can be traced to a desire by college and university officials who want to ensure that their students are prepared for college-level work and, therefore, will succeed academically, officials say.

And accompanying the new round of revisions is a recognition by the higher-education community that tougher admissions standards play an important role in improving precollegiate education, they say.

“You really feel that there’s no time to waste ... in defining what a high-school graduate should have accomplished,” said W. Ann Reynolds, chancellor of the City University of New York, which is in the process of preparing tougher admissions standards.

But others worry that there is a downside to the move by universities to tighten their academic standards and that the price will be paid by high-school students not planning to go on to college.

“Some kids should still be thinking about awareness and development instead of saying, ‘Yeah, I’m going to be an electrical engineer,”’ said Harlan Anderson, principal of North Community High School in Minneapolis.

“A lot of kids, if they have mechanical aptitude, may be selling themselves short,” he added.

While no comprehensive studies have been conducted on the matter, observers estimate that more than half the states have, since the mid-1980’s, made it harder to get into their colleges and universities. In many of those states, the tougher standards are already in place.

New Evidence of Interest

Evidence of the new round of interest in tightening up academic requirements can be found at a wide range of colleges and universities across the nation:

In March, the Presidents Council of State Universities of Michigan notified high-school students, teachers, and administrators that the state’s 15 colleges and universities will not admit students who do not meet tougher academic standards.

Starting in 1995, high-school graduates will have to complete a minimum of 12 credits heavily emphasizing English, mathematics, and the biological, physical, and social sciences to be admitted to the schools.

The council--the coordinating body for the state’s institutions of higher learning, each of which is governed by its own independent board--also strongly recommended that students complete an additional six credits in foreign language, the fine arts, and computer science.

The new standards compare with less stringent requirements now in effect that vary by institution.

“We see this as a very major initiative,” said Glenn Stevens, executive director of the council. “While it focuses on high school, it deals with the whole K through 12 experience.”

In February, the board of trustees of cuny adopted Chancellor Reynolds’s proposal to require incoming freshmen to take certain college-preparation courses.

Under the proposal, students who have not successfully completed those courses before admission to cuny, a series of 20 higher-education institutions with a long tradition of educating the city’s low-income students, would be required to do so before graduating from the university.

The school’s open-admissions policy would not be affected.

Under a proposal developed by a faculty committee, incoming students would, by the late 1990’s, have to complete 16 high-school credits: four years each of English and social studies, three years of mathematics, two years each of science and a foreign language, and one year of visual and performing arts.

The trustees plan to vote on the final requirements next year after consulting with the city board of education.

“I look at this as a much stronger college-high school partnership because we really want to work with the high schools to define the intellectual grasp that we expect each student to have,” Ms. Reynolds said. “We really owe it to the high schools to work with them and make sure we are supplying the teachers that are up to that.”

In February, state lawmakers gave the University of Wyoming, the only four-year institution in the state, the go-ahead to establish tougher admissions standards.

Since then, officials at the university, which since 1905 has admitted any graduate of an accredited state high school, have begun preparing a list of courses required for admission.

University officials hope to present their finished list to trustees by the end of the year and to implement the new standards in 1995.

Earlier this year, Franklyn Jenifer, the president of Howard University in Washington, D.C., one of the nation’s most prestigious historically black colleges, introduced the Howard University Index.

The index is designed to assist school officials in assessing a candidate’s qualifications by requiring certain core courses and by using high-school rank, grade-point average, and standardized test scores as the basis for admission.

Currently, admissions standards for Howard, a private school that receives a substantial proportion of its funding from the federal government, vary according to the different schools within the university.

While specific course requirements have not been determined, Mr. Jenifer said he expects they will be similar to those emphasizing English, science, mathematics, and foreign-language instruction being implemented at other schools.

“We know the students that take these kinds of courses are much more able to benefit from the education that we provide,” he said.

Ms. Reynolds of cuny, the nation’s largest urban university, agreed that better prepared students perform better in college.

“It’s not fair to have students, disproportionate numbers of whom are black and Hispanic, that are not at the starting point,” she said. “And it’s not fair to have black and Hispanic students disproportionately dropping out.”

Retreat From Flexibility

During the 1960’s and 1970’s, higher-education institutions responded to student unrest and calls for a more diverse and broadened curriculum by loosening demands that prospective students take a prescribed number of math, science, and English--or college-prep--courses.

High schools, too, got swept up in the trend toward a more flexible approach to course-taking by lowering their graduation requirements.

The result, critics of the twin policies say, was that students were graduating from high school ill-prepared to tackle college-level work.

“Large numbers of students were graduating from high school with decent grade-point averages, but without taking the core courses,” said Elaine El-Khawas, vice president for research at the American Council on Education.

The result, she added, was that the students faced “difficult odds for completing college.”

In addition, said Leo Abbott, director of admissions at the University of Minnesota, faculty members, complaining that many students were unprepared for college courses, said they were being forced to teach to the lowest common denominator or at a level far above some students’ abilities.

College and university officials first began retreating from the flexible, open-admissions policies they had adopted during the late 60’s and 70’s after the 1983 publication of the landmark report “A Nation At Risk.”

And over the past several years, the pendulum has been gaining momentum as it swings toward tougher admissions requirements.

At the same time, students are being required to take more college-prep courses for graduation, even if they do not expect to go on to college.

What Is the Impact?

Do the increased requirements lead to better prepared students enrolling in college? Although evidence on the issue is scarce, advocates point to a few limited studies.

For example, in 1985, the California State University System, during Ms. Reynolds’s tenure as chancellor there, adopted tougher admissions standards that have been phased in since.

Under the requirements, new students seeking admission to one of the system’s 20 campuses must have completed: four years of English; three years of mathematics; two years of foreign language, unless the student has demonstrated competency in a language other than English; one year each in U.S. history, laboratory science, and the arts; and three years of approved electives.

According to a report by the system’s board of trustees, only 8.8 percent of the 1986 applicants to the university system from California public schools had completed the 15 required units. By 1989, 50.9 percent of the applicants had completed the courses.

Meanwhile, first-time freshman enrollment in csu schools rose by 20 percent for blacks between 1984 and 1989, by 45 percent for Native Americans, and by 75 percent for Hispanics, according to Greta S. Mack, associate dean for academic affairs.

“We’ve noticed that more students are taking the course requirements, and our enrollment has continued to go up, including the enrollment of underrepresented groups,” said Ms. Mack, who cautioned that the statistics do not, in and of themselves, indicate whether students are better prepared for college-level work.

Another study, this one at the University of Wyoming, found that first-year students in 1987 who had taken a recommended four years of English, three years of mathematics, and three years of science in high school had a retention rate of 81 percent.

Students who did not take the recommended math and science courses had retention rates of 56 percent and 55 percent, respectively.

The move to increased admissions requirements does have its critics, however.

Negative Impact Noted

Many worry that the tougher standards will have a negative impact on the mission of high schools and that they will adversely affect enrollment in vocational-training and performance- and visual-arts courses.

In addition, some question whether requiring more “Carnegie units” will hamper attempts to implement outcome- or performance-based learning in high schools.

A number of principals said students at their high schools are taking more math, science, and English courses and fewer arts and vocational/technical courses.

With fewer interested students, some classes, including drama and woodworking, risk being dropped from school curricula altogether, concerned principals say. Such a move could leave students who do not plan to go on to college in the lurch, they add.

“I’m not sure we’re doing this for the population at large, but for certain groups,” said Morton Damesek, the principal of Franklin K. Lane High School in Woodhaven, N.Y., and the president of the New York City Principals Association. “Not all kids are academically oriented.’'

“There are kids that need more hands-on [experiences] or more music and excel at that,” he added. “Not everyone is going to college.”

Roger Elford, the principal of Owosso (Mich.) High School and the president of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals, said the increased requirements planned for colleges in his state run “counter to the mission of secondary schools in Michigan.”

High schools, he continued, must be flexible enough both to cater to the college-bound student as well as to those who are not continuing on to college.

He said strict entrance requirements to state colleges and universi4ties also harm high-school students who do not decide to go to college until late in their high-school career.

“What the presidents’ council [in Michigan] is saying is, ‘Hey, that kid’s lost,”’ Mr. Elford said.

Standards and Support

Charles Hayes, principal of Brown Deer (Wis.) High School, said his school has recently implemented graduation requirements tougher than the state minimums and the admissions standards that will go into effect throughout the University of Wisconsin system this fall.

Arguing that high schools and colleges must provide support services if they are going to expect more of students, Mr. Hayes said his school has launched a tutoring program using teachers, parents, and peers.

“It’s too soon to tell, but it may be that the four-year high-school graduation goes the way of the four-year college graduation,” Mr. Hayes said. “It’s not a matter of everyone taking more English and [saying], ‘There, we’ve solved the literacy problem.”’

In addition, principals in Michigan have criticized the presidents’ council for failing to consider reform efforts on the secondary and elementary level that emphasize performance-based learning and the demonstration of applied knowledge.

“They’ve got a good curriculum for the 1950’s,” Mr. Elford said.

In Wyoming, state officials from both the precollegiate and higher-education sectors are working together to establish university admissions standards that are based on a core curriculum and, at the same time, revise accrediting standards for elementary and secondary schools that ensure students have demonstrated knowledge and skills in numerous categories.

Said Diana J. Ohman, Wyoming’s superintendent of public instruction, “I see it as an opportunity to cooperate and talk about raising standards together.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 15, 1991 edition of Education Week as Wave of Universities Boosts Standards for Entering Freshmen


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