Johnny Castellaw likes the University of Kansas and might apply for admission after he graduates from Wichita’s South High School next year.
Most of his application will look attractive: 3.6 grade point average. Next year’s student body president. National Honor Society. Honors classes. Advanced Placement classes. Aspirations to attend medical school. A three-sport letterman disciplined enough to run 30 miles a week; he competed as a South High distance runner at the state championships this past weekend.
But KU did something this month that he said would give him worries about applying, if he has to contend with it.
The university wants to increase its admission standards, making them the toughest of the six state-supported universities. The chancellor, Bernadette Gray-Little, says KU hopes the new standards will strengthen the academic performance of incoming classes, making students more successful and less prone to struggle or drop out.
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Currently Kansas high school students have to meet one of three requirements to be admitted to a state university: graduate with a 2.0 grade point average, an ACT score of 21 on a 36-point scale or be in the top third of their class. Under the proposed standards the grade point average would rise to 3.0 — no trouble for Castellaw — but he would need an ACT test score of 24. Castellaw, according to South High counselor Courtney Bell, is “a great student, and a great kid,” but the last time he took the ACT, Castellaw scored below 21.
“Not sure why I struggle, but I do get a little nervous,” he said of the test, which measures ability in math, reading, writing and science.
About 35 percent of KU’s student body could not meet the proposed standard, which would also allow automatic admission with a 3.25 grade point average and an ACT score of 21.
The average ACT score in Kansas in 2011 was 22.
The Kansas Board of Regents is expected to vote on the tougher standards at its June 20-21 meeting in Topeka. If approved, the change would take effect in 2016. Castellaw won’t have to contend with the new standards, and those who might come up against them are currently in middle school.
Concerns for some
The tighter standards might also create challenges for minority students, said Bell, who helps hundreds of South High students figure out their academic futures every year. She said black and Hispanic students as a whole don’t score as well on tests as white students, but she said “tests are only part of the picture.”
“I’m a big fan of KU, and I tell many of my students that they need to think about going there, but I have concerns about this,” Bell said. “Tests and GPA scores don’t reflect character, or work ethic. I wonder if they might be working against their own best interests here.” She said she’s known students with high grade point averages and ACT scores above 27 who went to college — and failed.
The regents asked KU to develop the stronger standards, and KU anticipated concerns like Bell’s before they made the proposal, said Gray-Little, during a recent visit to Wichita.
Students who don’t meet the automatic admissions requirements will still have a chance to get in. Their applications would go before a review committee, which would look at mitigating circumstances and could provide resources for students who are admitted.
“It is not our goal to be smaller in class sizes,” Gray-Little said. Nor is it KU’s desire to be more exclusive, she said. “This is focused on being more successful.”
‘It’s about retention’
The attraction of raising standards is well known in academic circles, said Pat Bosco, Kansas State University’s vice president for student life and dean of students. “It’s about retention of students,” Bosco said. “It is a given that if you raise admission standards, your retention will go up.”
Retention of students is an admirable goal, said Don Beggs, the outgoing president of Wichita State University, who was present at Regents meetings during the past year when the KU proposal was developed. “KU studied their students, who was successful and who was not successful, and concluded that they might increase their probability of retaining students if they tried this.”
Wichita State has no plans to do the same, Beggs said. “We put a lot of emphasis on access here, and don’t plan to change that.”
All universities would like to see their graduation and retention rates go up. About 80 percent of the freshmen at KU and K-State return for their sophomore year. At WSU, the number is 70 percent.
About 60 percent of KU’s students graduate within six years, Gray-Little said.
K-State has about the same graduation rate. WSU’s six-year graduation rate is about 40 percent, according to Keith Pickus, WSU’s interim provost. The lower rate at WSU results from differences in population demographics, and because the mission of WSU is so much different from the other schools, he said. KU tends to be a more traditional university, drawing in more young people seeking a degree after high school, where WSU’s students include many working people trying to enhance their education.
How best to increase retention is a question Pickus finds fascinating.
“They are not trying to create a snob school there (at KU),” he said. “But they are trying to elevate the stature of their university, and one way you can do that is to make the admissions process more selective. In an odd kind of way, by being more restrictive, you might make yourself look more competitive, and more attractive, to Kansans who might be thinking about going to schools elsewhere.”
By raising admission standards, KU hopes to attract more applicants, Gray-Little said. Under the proposal, future Jayhawks also would have to apply for admission by Feb. 1. Gray-Little said that 81 percent of students who apply by that date come back to KU for a second year, compared with 58 percent of students who apply later.
No changes planned at WSU, K-State
WSU and K-State have no plans to make their automatic admissions requirements tighter. They will stick with a 2.0 grade point average or a test score of at least 21 on the ACT.
Reasons vary for why students fail. Gray-Little said her concerns about that include how much students are learning — or not learning — in high school. “I would wager that the primary reason for failure is inadequate academic preparation,” she said.
But Bell at South High, and WSU’s Pickus, said it’s more complicated than that. At South High, Bell said, “we do a pretty good job of watching students and intervening if we think they are falling behind. We hold their hands, and come at them about rules. And if they need tutoring, we hunt them down and get it for them.”
But college is different. “We’re not hand-holders here,” Pickus said. “When students come to college, there is an expectation that students are supposed to be responsible.”