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Colleges look for new and legal ways to help build a diverse first-year class

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Colleges are looking for new and legal ways to help build first-year classes that will be diverse and whose members will be successful in the long run. And that's taken on new importance after the Supreme Court banned race-conscious admissions policies. To paint a fuller picture of a prospective student, colleges could lean on things like a high school profile, the neighborhood a student grew up in and family resources. As NPR's Elissa Nadworny reports, new research shows that doing that can be a great predictor of student success when they get to campus.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: When college admissions officers are deciding who gets in, they often look at context, not just raw numbers like grades or SAT scores. It's called holistic review, and the majority of highly selective colleges use some form of it.

MICHAEL BASTEDO: We've been doing holistic practices for a long time in higher education.

NADWORNY: Michael Bastedo is a professor and researcher at the University of Michigan, and he studies college admissions.

BASTEDO: Part of holistic review is trying to figure out how does the student do in the context of the opportunities that they've had in their high school?

NADWORNY: And so an example of that might be, you know, they only took one AP class, but there was only one AP class offered at their high school. Is that a fair example?

BASTEDO: That's right. We have high schools in America that offer 26 AP exams, and we have high schools that offer no AP exams. And so you can only expect a student to do the courses that are available to them in their high school.

NADWORNY: Previous research shows using this context can help build a more diverse class. But what about success when those students actually get to college? That's what Bastedo heard a lot of admissions officers get hung up on when he was observing them.

BASTEDO: Multiple times, I would hear things like, I don't know if they're going to make it here. I don't know if they're going to succeed in our school.

NADWORNY: So he and his team looked at data from more than 2 million high school students and tracked what happened to them in college. Did they stay enrolled after freshman year? How were their grades?

BASTEDO: We found that there was a really solid association between how a student performed in their high school context and their college grades and their college retention and their graduation.

NADWORNY: It's basically saying, like, if you did well in the circumstances that you were having in high school, that translates to college.

BASTEDO: Yeah, I know. It sounds pretty simple.

NADWORNY: And yet, Bastedo says, despite being straightforward, it can be really hard for someone in admissions to trust context or to put aside personal bias. Maybe the student comes from a high school or a neighborhood they don't know, or it's a rural school that they've never had a student apply from before. This research, published in a journal of the American Educational Research Association, it should give them confidence to know...

BASTEDO: You're not taking a big risk when you admit a student who's doing really well in their context.

EDDIE COMEAUX: I'm not surprised at all.

NADWORNY: Eddie Comeaux is a professor of education at UC Riverside who's been helping lead the redesign of the University of California's admissions process. He says it makes sense that when you look at opportunities students have had, that can help you identify who will have the ability to perform well in the future. But also colleges need to play a role in that, not just students.

COMEAUX: Holistically, we should be thinking about not only entrance but also support once you get there.

NADWORNY: It's the institution's responsibility, he argues, to create a culture of success, to provide resources to make sure that students graduate. But it all starts with opportunity and who gets in. A big challenge colleges face in all this - it's expensive. Taking more time with applications, hiring more people to look at the context in an application - that means more money. At the same time, Bastedo points out, it's also expensive to admit more students from low-income backgrounds.

BASTEDO: The more equitable that we're being in the admissions process, it can mean a higher cost to the institution in terms of financial aid. And they're forgoing, you know, potentially that student who's full pay.

NADWORNY: But in this post-affirmative action world, colleges have consistently said they're committed more than ever to access, to helping students from all backgrounds and races and income levels come to their institutions and get a degree. And Bastedo argues more context is one evidence-based strategy to do that.

Elissa Nadworny, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.