The strong case for holistic admissions

I had the opportunity to present the results of a groundbreaking university health care admissions study in Washington, D.C., alongside colleagues from the Urban Universities for HEALTH (Health Equity through Alignment, Leadership and Transformation of the Health workforce).

Urban Universities for HEALTH is a partnership between the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) and the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities (USU), with funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The project aims to improve evidence and the use of data to help universities enhance and expand a culturally sensitive, diverse and prepared health workforce that will improve health and health equity in underserved urban communities.

Last year, my USU colleagues brought together a number of health professions leaders to develop concrete action steps that could be taken to improve the diversity and competence of the health workforce. Diversity in the health workforce is critically important because research tells us it may improve access to health care for medically underserved patients and reduce what we call "health disparities."

One of our action items was to gather evidence around a promising practice called holistic review. This is a university admissions strategy that assesses an applicant's unique experiences alongside traditional measures of academic achievement such as grades and test scores. The use of this practice was growing, but what we didn't know was how it affected universities and students. In particular, some leaders were concerned that by reducing reliance on standardized test scores, they would admit students who would struggle or fail to graduate.

This is the first national study of public universities that examines the evidence around holistic review. The first part of the study involved a survey, and we received an enthusiastic response - the response rate was 64 percent, and more than 100 universities from 45 different states participated.

Some key findings are:

  • 67 percent of health professions schools reported they had made a switch to holistic review within the past 10 years. A total of 75 percent are currently using holistic review.
  • At schools using holistic review, diversity had increased to a statistically significant degree.
  • For traditional student success metrics such as incoming average GPA, incoming standardized test scores, graduation rates and average GPA of the graduating class, the majority of schools using holistic review said these metrics were unchanged or improved.
  • What these survey results suggest is that holistic review is increasing diversity and helping schools assemble a class that is still just as academically prepared as classes admitted through traditional methods.

    At my inaugural address, I said that we should reject false choices, among which is the choice between diversity and excellence. This study provides real evidence that we have both and we can benefit in myriad ways from the combination.

    At Wayne State, we have made modest progress in implementing a holistic admissions policy, and the learning from this study can help us improve our approach. After all, welcoming diversity and achieving excellence run deep in our history.

    Watch a video of the full presentation.

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