Want Equal Access to Higher Education? Evaluate Students Differently.

Education changes lives. It works against inequality and discrimination, in turn making the society we live in a better place. Of course this is an idealistic point of view. My passion for education in general and equal access to higher education comes from my own experience during the Civil Rights Movement and during my time at law school. I have been incredibly privileged to have access to a quality education, so I have made it my mission to give back by working in public interest law. While part of this mission has been case study research, I’ve also worked on providing social science evidence for U.S. Supreme Court cases involving education.

The Problem with “Neutral” Admission Standards

Universities and colleges have long understood the benefits of having diverse learners, one of which is a better learning environment for all. Unfortunately my research has shown the very policies put in place to encourage diversity, such as summer bridge programs designed for underrepresented students of color and low income students, are increasingly coming under attack and being discontinued. These programs are particularly important because race and class often combine to make it more difficult for underrepresented student groups to gain access to high quality education.

When institutions use “neutral” admission criteria, they don’t take inequality of schools into consideration and may inadvertently discriminate in one way or another. A lawsuit filed against the state of California and UC Berkley illustrates this problem. At the time, only 50% of California public high schools offered AP classes, yet AP coursework carried significant weight in the admissions process. The result was students from low-resource schools were disadvantaged from the start. Admission directors are looking for a student body full of different perspectives—and they are starting to see results by using a “whole-file” approach to evaluate potential students.

Moving Toward A Holistic Student Review

A “whole-file” approach to admissions paves the way for greater access to higher education for many students—and it is something we embrace here at the University of Minnesota. It starts by placing less weight in the admissions process on class rank, standardized test scores and cumulative GPA. While grades can be great predictors of success in college, combining them with demanding coursework, creativity and “grit”—or the ability to overcome obstacles—tells a more complete story.

One of the biggest reasons to move toward a holistic review, however, is the often limited availability of college preparatory and advanced placement (AP) classes, which are generally weighted in the admission process. Yes, demanding coursework is a great predictor of college success and should be heavily considered, but the problem is not all high school students have equal access to these courses. When we look at low-resource schools with high African American and Latino populations, they may offer some AP courses, but teachers are often less experienced and facilities are under resourced. For example, students may be able to take an advanced science class, but often don’t have access to a suitable lab. Or perhaps there may be only a limited number of AP classes to choose from.

5 Ways Young People Can Prepare for College

Preparing for and transitioning to college can be a big challenge, especially for those student groups who traditionally have not had equal access to higher education and the resources to get there. Consider these five tips and share them with your children, students, friends and/or siblings.

  1. Get involved in junior high and high school. Too many students disconnect early in their academic careers, especially in important subjects like math and science. Young people need to challenge themselves and get involved at this age. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. There are a number of great tutoring programs, and don’t forget about extracurricular activities. Again, it’s important for students to get involved, but also to be selective with clubs and causes. Admission directors often look for students who start their own side project or take on a leadership role as opposed to being part of everything.
  2. Visit local campuses. Sometimes it can be inspiring for students to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Most institutions have summer programs and short weekend programs for junior high and high schools students. These programs include sports, science, debate and more. It’s important to explore different areas to see if there’s something you might enjoy. If money is an issue, there are often scholarships available.
  3. Talk about financial aid early and often. The biggest barrier surrounding higher education is being able to pay for it. Again, there are a number of free resources, such as workshops offered online and in-person, that can help you figure out how to pay for college. I hate to see people give up because they can’t afford it. Talk with your parents, guardians, teachers, administrators, etc. Chances are there is some form of financial aid you are eligible for.
  4. Choose classes you are interested in. Of course every student has certain requirements to meet, but for the most part it is important to challenge yourself in areas you enjoy. This always leads to better results. You will be ready for college and college will be ready for you.
  5. Take advantage of free courses. Writing a college application or admissions essay can be nerve-wracking. So can taking a timed exam. There are a number of free courses available to help with these critical skills, especially right here in the Twin Cities.
Karen Miksch

About the Author

Karen Miksch, Ph.D.

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2 thoughts on “Want Equal Access to Higher Education? Evaluate Students Differently.”

  1. rajesh.t.r says:

    When is the deadline to apply for admission?

    1. CEHD says:

      Thank you for your interest in the University of Minnesota. This link will bring you to our site that provides detailed information about our admissions process including a contact email to obtain additional information.


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