Holistic Admissions Goes Beyond Test Scores to Increase Diversity

By Marc A. Nivet, EdD, MBA, and Jennifer Danek, MD

Imagine that you’re an admissions officer at a prestigious nursing or medical school. You’re considering the file of an applicant who has a 3.0 grade point average and an ACT score of 31. Would you admit the applicant? You might be hesitant.

What if you then learned that the applicant is a first-generation college student whose family is living below the poverty line and is socioeconomically disadvantaged? You might give the applicant’s file another look.

Then you discover that the applicant maintained that 3.0 GPA while working over 40 hours a week to support his entire family. You may now be regarding that file with a new sense of appreciation for the applicant’s accomplishments. And in so doing, you may be admitting an absolutely outstanding future nurse or doctor who might have been overlooked in a process that focuses only on grades and test scores.

That true applicant story was recounted Dr. Greer Glazer, dean of the College of Nursing at the University of Cincinnati, at the recent release of a new study, Holistic Admissions in the Health Professions. The study, for which Glazer was co-principal investigator, shows that looking beyond grades and standardized test scores in admissions leads to an increase in the diversity of the incoming class. It also evidences no resulting decline in measures of academic quality, student academic performance, or student retention. It is the first large-scale study to examine the impact of holistic review across multiple health disciplines at universities nationwide.

Glazer continues the story: “Three years ago, this student would not have been admitted because the first screening involved just GPA and test scores. Now, with holistic admissions, we try to look at students’ experiences, their attributes, and their metrics equally to see if they will meet the mission of our colleges and universities and make an important contribution to the learning environment.”

Holistic admissions practices are designed to help universities consider a broad range of factors reflecting an applicant’s academic readiness, contribution to the incoming class, and potential for success both in school and later as a professional.

Growing health workforce shortages, a rapidly diversifying patient population, and a changing health care system have created new challenges for preparing a workforce that can address the health needs of diverse communities.  The admissions process is one area where university leaders may intervene to respond to this need.

“Our study shows that holistic review is a very promising admissions practice that not only increased access for diverse students, but also admitted students who excelled academically and have the right qualities to be successful in the workforce,” says Glazer.

This study was coordinated by Urban Universities for HEALTH, a partnership between the Association of Public Land-grant Universities (APLU)/Coalition of Urban Serving Universities (USU) and the AAMC (Association of American Medical Colleges).  The study was supported by funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA).

MarcNivetColorDanek JenniferMarc Nivet is chief diversity officer at the Association of American Medical Colleges; he can be reached at mnivet@aamc.org. Jennifer Danek is senior director of Urban Universities for health; she can be reached at jdanek@usucoalition.org.