Hampshire’s Holistic Admissions Evaluates What Matters

Editorial Board

Admission to Hampshire College got a little simpler, a bit harder and a whole lot more innovative last year — and it has the results to prove it. The private liberal arts college in Amherst, MA, decided not to accept SAT and ACT scores from applicants for the class of 2019, pushing past the “test-optional” policy many similar schools have adopted. Hampshire’s decision has disqualified it from inclusion in U.S. News & World Report’s annual ranking of the U.S.’s “Best Colleges,” as standardized test scores account for just over eight percent of a school’s ranking.

Two weeks ago, the Editorial Board wrote about the benefits of a numbers-based approach to evaluating colleges (“College Scorecard Can Disrupt Higher Ed’s Prestige Economy,” Sept. 18, 2015). In an often hostile post-graduation climate characterized by high unemployment and rising student debt, looking at a college’s return on investment can be helpful. But that doesn’t mean that Hampshire’s radically holistic approach to admissions isn’t a smart move. Removing SAT and ACT scores from the equation allows admissions officers to cut right to what’s most important and make better predictions of student success — many of the same benefits provided by President Obama’s College Scorecard.

Hampshire President Jonathan Lash, who also serves as a director of the D.C. global environmental research organization World Resource Institute, published his college’s findings on how its SAT and ACT ban impacted the admissions process in The Chicago Tribune last week. “Standardized test scores do not predict a student’s success at our college,” Lash wrote. “SATs/ACTs are strongly biased against low-income students and students of color, at a time when diversity is critical to our mission. … Not once did we sit in an Admissions committee meeting and ‘wish we had a test score.’” Statistics from Hampshire’s class of 2019 speak to the benefits of removing test scores from the application process: Hampshire’s yield, or percent of students who are accepted and subsequently enroll, rose from 18 percent to 26 percent in just one year. While the quantity of student applications decreased — probably due to the greater number of essays required — quality increased as prospective students focused more on their achievements and talents, according to Lash. What’s more, students of color make up 31 percent of the class of 2019, compared to 21 percent from two years ago, and 18 percent of this year’s admitted students were first-generation.

The admissions committee saved time and expense as their pool dwindled, thereby becoming “more targeted, engaged, passionate and robust,” according to Lash. This dramatic reorganization of priorities allowed the committee to get a clearer view of what it believes ultimately qualifies a student for admission: well-rounded character, a desire to learn and alternative avenues of intelligence.

When you think about it, it’s not that different from what Obama’s College Scorecard aims to accomplish, though Hampshire achieves this goal by favoring a subjective rather than an objective method. Just as College Scorecard provides prospective students with streamlined information about a college’s potential to increase their individual earning potentials, Hampshire College can now more accurately predict how students might affect the intellectual climate of the campus and perform in classes. The college’s new admissions criteria complement the Scorecard in that they measure “return on investment” from the college’s point of view — how likely a student is to succeed at that school, not monetarily and not after graduation, but academically over the next four years. Hampshire can rest more easily knowing that their investment in each student hasn’t been diluted by extraneous factors.

It’s worth noting that Hampshire also gives students written assessments in lieu of grades. In a sense, last year’s shift in admissions philosophy simply brings that office in line with the college’s academic departments. But we wonder whether holistic evaluation prior to enrollment provides the same benefits as holistic evaluation after enrollment. Is there ever a time or place to compare students using numerical metrics? Are colleges themselves the only entities for whom reduction to a single number is acceptable?

For now, no. By not accepting the SAT or ACT, Hampshire is in the extreme minority. But trailblazers lead to trends, which themselves lead to paradigm shifts. Who knows — maybe several years down the road, students and colleges will have the tools they need to cut the fat and find a match more efficiently.