Conditional Admits and the Academic Enrichment Center

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Shirley E. Arnold
Academic Enrichment Center
Brevard College

What is an Office of Admission to do with applicants who do not fit exactly into an institution’s matrix of scores (SAT/ACT/GPA) for automatic acceptance? No doubt, some schools feel they have the luxury of rejecting all such students out of hand. But others of us are more likely to give such students a second look – not simply because we are tuition-driven and want the numbers, but also because we recognize that the right kind of college education can awaken the skills and talents that have lain dorment in such students throughout their high school careers.

One approach for dealing with applicants whose scores indicate a certain amount of academic risk is to admit them “conditionally.” In the remainder of this article, I want to focus on strategies for successful use of a category of “Conditional Admits” (CA’s). Unfortunately there is no Easy Button? to guide an Admissions officer to the “right” student, but there are certain considerations that can help make the decision process both easier and more equitable.

My 20+ years of experience in higher education – as a Director of Admissions and now as the Director of an Academic Enrichment Center – confirms my belief that there is a place for Conditional Admit students. To make successful use of such a category, however, a college must examine its track record in working with “at risk” students in order to establish clear and consistent guidelines in each of the following areas:

  • The lowest acceptable total standardized test score, the lowest verbal score, and an amplification of that score in some sample of student writing (e.g. an essay).
  • The lowest projected college grade point average.
  • How many teacher/counselor recommendations are required and what information needs to be included in such recommendations.
  • What on-campus interviews must be conducted” admissions, faculty, and/or Director of Academic Enrichment Center/equivalent position.
  • What is the total number of CA’s who can be accepted annually, based on support staffing availability.

Even with these guidelines established, a system of checks and balances must be in place to assure equity in the treatment of students. This is especially necessary in cases where a college admissions staff operates under a quota system. An admissions counselor who is below his/her quota might be tempted to recommend an at risk student to help reach the quota in order to keep his/her job. A student with low scores may stand a better chance of being admitted in July or August than he or she would have had the application been processed in February. Or an admissions counselor may have developed a strong bond with a student and family, and thus may have difficulties in making an objective decision without some outside assistance.

In my own situation, I am most fortunate to work with an admissions team that is professional in looking consistently for the right match between a prospective student and our college. Because I have walked in their recruiting shoes, I fully understand the pressures they face. I am fortunate in that the admissions staff allows me to be the outside “check” in the process of admitting any student who is a potential academic risk. I believe this cooperative relationship allows the admissions counselor to bond with the student knowing that someone outside the admissions office can make the crucial call on acceptance or rejection, if needed. I see it as part of my job to keep a running tabulation of test scores and GPA’s of all “at risk” students whom we consider, so that I can be consistent with my decisions, no matter the time of year.

Among the most vital pieces of information for consideration in the decision making process are the student essay and personal interview. The student essay tells the reviewers much about the student; personally, I want the student to convince me that he/she is ready for, and even excited about, the challenges of college. There are times I request an interview with the student, preferably face to face. Why? The student who looks me in the eye to answer my tough questions has a better chance of convincing me he/she is worth the risk. If that cannot be arranged then a phone interview is acceptable.

In determining our CA guidelines, we have determined that two teacher recommendations are necesary; and in the case of athletes, these recommendations cannot be from coaches who also teach the student. More times than not, the teacher/coach talks more about athletic character rather than academic ability. TheVP of Enrollment Management and I are considering preparing a standardized form for teacher recommendations for these at risk/conditional admit students. Our belief is that the more specific academic information we receive, the better decision we can make as an institution. We do not want to commit our resources to students who are not able to take full advantage of them; and we do not want to bring to our campus students who do not have a good chance to succeed!

When we decide to admit a student with “conditional” status, we send the student a standard CA contract from the Admissions Office. Included in that standardized contract is a required contact with me as the Director of the Academic Enrichment Center. Two weeks prior to fall orientation, I follow up with individual letters to the students stating the procedure to follow in making contact with my office to create an individualized academic success plan. (It is important to note that we maintain complete confidentiality with our conditional admits; apart from records kept by the admissions office and my office, there is no other public identification given or stigma incurred by a student with CA status).

Once classes begin, a follow up individual email goes out to CA’s reminding them of the requirement to be in contact with me. The purpose of the initial meeting I have with each student is to prepare an academic agreement geared to that person’s individual needs. Such an agreement usually involves meeting with me or with one of my staff on a weekly basis; it may also involve making use of other support services such as the Writing Lab, Math Lab, or peer tutoring. The student and I both sign the agreement as a declaration of our partnership toward the completion of a successful academic semester.?

Getting students to come in and make regular use of the Academic Enrichment Center is not as difficult as might be expected. Once marginal students realize that the AEC is used by a wide variety of other students and that no one knows who is “required” to be there and who is simply there because it is a place to “hang out,” coming into the space becomes a lot easier for them. Of course, not all students make the best use of the resources available in the Center for their assistance: some use their time surfing the internet instead, or doing whatever it is they do on “Face Book”! Such students often learn the harsh reality of academic suspension as a result of not using their time wisely. We hope, though, that they realize their failure is not a reflection of their abilities, but rather a reflection of their choices, and of behaviors that they have the capacity to change.

On the other hand, students who take seriously their academic agreement and use it as an opportunity to build appropriate study and time-management skills end up gaining enormous confidence in themselves. Many of them attain a CGPA of 2.0 or better by the end of the first semester. If they do, all conditions are dropped and they move to regular admission status.

In the three years that we have had this system in place, our retention of at-risk students has risen markedly. Indeed, it is a fascinating fact that some of our “conditional admits” end up becoming our strongest student leaders and our brightest success stories. Their achievements bolster our confidence that we are not just in the admissions “business” because we care about enrollment and tuition figures; we do the work that we do because we see the tremendous difference it can make in individual lives.

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