The Arizona Desert Lamp

Achievement by fiat

Posted in Campus by Evan Lisull on 1 September 2009

Baby, rationally drinking in response to a Tom Brokaw comparisonThere are certainly many high achieving members in the class of 2013, and I hope that they take no offense to this belabored defense of the idea that they are not the Greatest Class Ever. Nonetheless, the Admission Czar (Paul Kohn)”s response to the Wildcat‘s response is a rather stunning repudiation of non-UA-based metrics:

This year’s freshman class is in fact the most academically gifted ever, a distinction we base on criteria other than SAT and ACT scores. It is based on the all-time high record number of Honors College students who have enrolled, on the record number of national scholars ­— not just National Merit Scholars — enrolled, and on the highest-ever portion of students who are projected to earn at least a 3.5 GPA in the UA’s rigorous academic environment.

President Bush certainly had his faults, but hopefully his “bigotry of low expectations” will survive through the Obama years. It certainly applies here. The Czar effectively rejects SAT and ACT scores, because they don’t jive with this vision of glory. Or something.

SAT scores and ACT scores are not the be-all and end-all of admissions – nor is any other provision of the admissions process. But to simply ignore an almost continuously downward sloping trend in your national test scores and your academic index is to whistle Dixie past some serious underlying problems.

Even more astonishing is what Dr. Krohn chooses to use for metrics in place of test scores. Rather than high school GPA (which is stagnant), Krohn cites three factors:

  • Record enrollment in the Honors college.

The UA is developing an unhealthy fetish with the largeness of things, whereby more is by definition better, rather than merrier. Why Shelton, Hay, et al think that it’s a good idea to compete on the basis of size with the 67,000, multi-campus ASU monstrosity is a question unanswered. We saw this with the exultation of “7,000, baby!”, while administrators ignored the idea that size has its own problems and that perhaps a 35,000 person campus wasn’t the worst thing in the world. Now Dr. Kohn is exhibiting the same sort of “big is good” mentality on the Honors College.

Now, Dr. Kohn might have a point if Honors admission was based on a certain threshold – say, a certain ACT/SAT score or a given high school GPA, with the option to substitute AP/IB/SAT II scores in their place. If this were true, record Honors enrollment would indicate a record-high number of students in the long-tail of academic achievement – effectively, bifurcating the campus between savants and below-average Joes. As it turns out, Honors admission is entirely holistic:

New freshman and transfer students who submit The University of Arizona admission application are considered for Honors admission and merit based scholarships. Please note that there is an Honors question included with the application. A response to the Honors question must be provided or you will not be able to complete the application and be considered for Honors. Students are invited to join Honors; no separate application is required for Honors College consideration. If you are admissible to The Honors College, you will receive detailed information about Honors in your official Admissions packet.

It would be interesting if Dr. Kohn could produce some of this same statistical information that we’ve seen for campus as a whole for the Honors college in particular. It would be nice to see test scores rising, and a smarter Honors college than in previous years. The current data, however, gives no indication that the Honors college is doing anything other than providing a mirror to campus-wide trends: greater quantity, lower quality.

  • Record number of ‘national scholars’ (not national merit)

The distinction here is crucial. National merit scholars – also known as national merit finalists – are down from previous years. But national scholars are up. So who are the other students are making up the difference?

The college also admitted its largest class of National Hispanic Scholars – 92 students, up from 54 last year.

Nearly 200 of the newest Honors class are transfer students, 78 are also National Merit Scholars and eight are National Achievement Scholars, a competitive program open to African American students.

Perhaps this is unfair, but seeing how the university has a propensity to cite each and every positive record it comes across I’ll go ahead and assume that the eight National Achievement scholars are not a record. Essentially, the Honors college nearly doubled its Hispanic Scholars contingent, and witnessed reduced numbers in all other metrics. This is a shift, certainly, and one could argue that it is a good shift (an argument hinging on demographic trends favoring Hispanics and the promise much federal love with the appropriate designation). But one could equally argue that this is a bad shift, one that replaces pure academic achievement with semi-achievement + culture. Whatever it is, it certainly not a “fact,” as Dr. Kohn insinuates.

(Also, it should be pointed out this this second argument slightly undercuts the first – national scholars are automatically enrolled in the Honors college; thus, maintaining current admission patterns would still result in ‘record enrollment’.)

  • Record projected GPA.

Perhaps this doesn’t even need parsing, but this is rather ridiculous. For one, what could this possibly be based on, if not test scores and GPA? What magic holistic hat are they pulling such projections from? Incidentally, what sort of numbers are kept on ‘projected class GPA’ versus ‘actual class GPA’? More importantly, how does this reflect anything more than grade inflation? Such inflation has been attacked from all sides of the academic debate for a reason – to cite it as an accomplishment worthy of praising is rather odd.

Dr. Kohn proved to be right when it came to the diversity numbers, but this is quite irrelevant to the idea that this class is not as academically successful as preceding classes. He concludes this paragraph by citing the UA’s “rigorous academic environment,” but given what this entire debate has revolved around doesn’t this beg the question? Recall what President Shelton declared in his inaugural address, back in 2006:

This cannot be the future of the UA. Arizona has invested too much in our success to allow us to backslide, or even stagnate. Instead, I am determined to set the UA in the opposite path: We will be a top 10 public research university. And all of the people of Arizona will be the beneficiaries of this achievement.

Three years might not be a lot of time, but trends such as these are hard to reverse. If the UA is still serious about this goal (a question very much up in the air), it should immediately look towards raising standards – and, in effect, lowing admissions – in the coming years.

Meanwhile, President Shelton has also described the admissions system as “not foolproof.” This is greatest unintentional double-entendre – perhaps, even, triple-entendre – of the year.


2 Responses

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  1. Jesse Gunsch said, on 1 September 2009 at 12:37 pm

    This whole spectacle is rather fun to watch.

    Incidentally, do you know of any statistics regarding how many students actually graduate with honors? I would expect it is a very low percentage, much lower than the students who actually are *in* the Honors College. Even personally, I know plenty of students who enjoy the ability to easily get into open honors sections of general education courses, borrow library books longer (thirteen TIMES longer, in fact)–the benefits of being in the College–but don’t care to actually do the Honors Thesis or actually complete all the requirements to graduate with it.

  2. […] story, then, is not that the Dean Thompson is playing Xerxes to UA’s Greek Life, but that admissions standards are stagnant. The bigger issue is not that kids are getting more drinking violations for UAPD, but that more […]

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