Towson scraps gender effort

Lower grades, higher SAT formula aimed to draw more males

October 25, 2007|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,SUN REPORTER

Citing high attrition rates, Towson University says it will discontinue an unusual admissions program that was designed to attract male students by admitting applicants with lower grades but higher SAT scores.

Launched in the fall of 2005, the experiment was designed in part to address concerns about declining enrollment of males, who make up 42 percent of the U.S. college population and 40 percent at Towson.

Women were admitted through the program, too, but it was aimed primarily at drawing male students - who are more likely to have higher SAT scores but lower grades. The problem, officials said, was that too many students in the program left the college or had to drop out.

"The bottom line is, our retention rate in the program is not as high as our overall freshmen retention rate," said Deborah Leather, who oversaw the project as associate provost. "Basically, we are proving what has already been known, which is that grade point average is a better predictor of student success than SAT scores."

Under the program, Towson has admitted about 190 freshmen whose high school grade point averages of roughly 2.8 would normally be too low for acceptance, but who also had SAT scores of about 1,200 - or about 100 higher than is typical for students there.

University administrators hoped that by requiring these students to attend mandatory study halls, meet regularly with academic advisers and maintain at least a 2.0 average in their freshman year, they could overcome "slacker" study habits and live up to their academic potential.

But after two years of data showed that only about 70 percent of these students remained at Towson more than one year - compared with 84 percent to 88 percent of regularly admitted students - officials decided to scrap the initiative, Leather said.

"More of them were successful than we would expect for students like that," said Lonnie McNew, senior associate vice president for enrollment management. "Still, they were well below the norm for our freshman class."

Only 21 percent of students who remain enrolled have a college GPA of 3.0 or higher. And of those who excelled at Towson, many transferred, McNew said. "They transferred to go to more selective schools, schools they would have initially liked to apply to."

Towson's decision to tinker with its admissions standards was criticized by some education experts, who said the university was using SAT scores as an "affirmative action" program for white males, who tend to score highest on the test. Admissions officials at other schools with large gender imbalances, such as Goucher College, predicted that the lower grades/higher SAT formula would be a "recipe for attrition."

Leather defended the initiative as a sincere attempt to offer college access to students with unrealized potential and noted that about 15 percent of students enrolled in the program were women. There were no discernible differences between the performance of male and female students, she said.

Many students "are not only doing really well academically but have matured and grown personally, and I think they are destined to do very good things," she said.

Some students who were admitted under the program expressed surprise and disappointment that it was being discontinued.

"It helped me a lot," said Matthew Felperin, a sophomore from Silver Spring, who said he had a 2.9 GPA in his first year at Towson. "I always had a problem with studying and turning in work on time," he said. The mandatory study halls "helped me get a jump-start on all that work."

Felperin said two friends in the program were asked to leave college last year because they failed to meet the study hall requirements. But one has transferred back from a community college and the other also plans to return, he said.

"I don't think they should discontinue it," said Dana Woodson, a sophomore who had a 2.0 GPA last year but said she is "doing better" this year. "It seemed like it was helping people."

News of the program's cancellation was greeted with approval by Robert Schaeffer of FairTest, an advocacy group critical of the way college admission tests are used. "Congratulations to Towson for recognizing that test scores are not merit," he said. "There is a problem with the representation of young males, and particularly minority males, in higher education, but playing games with test scores is not the way to solve it."

National research shows that high school grades and the rigor of a secondary school curriculum are better predictors of college performance than SAT scores alone. In emphasizing SAT scores for a small cohort of students, Towson was bucking a trend of giving greater priority to grades than test scores.

The Towson experiment was an attempted counterbalance to its general admissions strategy. In the past decade, the university has been giving more weight to high school grades than SAT scores.

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