An Admissions/Enrollment Imperative for Predicting Student Success

May 16, 2019
  • AACRAO Publications
  • Admissions and Recruitment
  • Enrollment Goals
  • Enrollment Management
  • Holistic Admissions
  • Retention
  • Admissions
  • Holistic admissions
  • Student Success

By Michele Sandlin


This feature focuses on the five areas an institution needs to know before implementing holistic measures. These are: what does a holistic review entail, how to be legally complaint, Sedlacek's noncognitive variables, applying student success measures, and the vital importance of training.

The Insight Resume: Oregon State University’s Approach to Holistic Assessment,” published in the AACRAO College Admissions Officer’s Guide in 2008, outlined what had occurred when Oregon State University had begun to add a nonacademic assessment to its admission requirements. The goal since embarking on this venture in 2000–01 had been to fulfill the mission of a land-grant university and serve the state of Oregon, but  this had become increasingly challenging because “the institution did not have a reliable way for nontraditional students to demonstrate their knowledge in order to be admitted to our campuses” (Sandlin 2008). At the time, the campus had been dealing with record enrollments and was concerned about to whom it was closing its doors and how it would impact the institution’s goal “to diversify and create a richer learning environment” (Sandlin 2008). Fast forward to 2017: in less than ten years, the concept of expanding admission requirements from just academic preparation to a holistic review that includes life skills, socioeconomic status, educational background, and other factors has become much more commonplace and in fact necessary in order to achieve the goals Oregon State had established in the early 2000s.

It is important to define what is meant by holistic assessment or holistic review. Holistic can be defined as an emphasis on the whole person, not just select pieces that make up the whole person. If a college has holistic admissions, the school’s admissions officers consider the whole applicant, not just empirical data like a grade point average (GPA) or scholastic achievement test (SAT) scores. Colleges with holistic admissions are not simply looking for stu- dents with good grades.They want to admit interesting students who will contribute to the campus community in meaningful ways (Grove 2017).

Jaschik (2007), editor of Inside Higher Ed, provides another useful definition:

“…the qualities being asked about reward, determina- tion, hard work, and other qualities that do in fact re- late to college success as much as test scores.

Incorporating additional non-academic criteria into the admission requirements equation has actually been a practice for more than 20 years and has been researched for close to 40 years. Only within the past ten years, though, has there been a surge in the number of colleges and universities that have incorporated nonacademic factors into the admission process, orientation, or first-year experience programs in order to better predict and ensure student success. This is an add-on and not a take-away methodology. Incorporating additional measures, the value of which is supported by research and case law, improves the decision-making process and increases the likelihood that students will be admitted who are a good fit for the institution and who will be successful. Decisions will be based not only on students’ academic accomplishments but also on the life skills and support students will require to survive and thrive.

A 2017 article in Inside Higher Ed focused on the admission process at selective colleges and universities. The author notes that such institutions admit students who “are increasingly from families with the resources to own houses in great school districts or afford private school”; he states further that “75 percent of students at selective colleges come from the top income quartile, while only 5 percent [come] from the bottom quartile” (Craig 2017, 2). And while there are only approximately 200 selective institutions, they have a significant role in that they are the “lens through which American culture views the entire higher education system” (Craig 2017, 2). This article promotes the idea of expanding admission requirements to add a life skills factor—what Craig calls “distance traveled” (Craig 2017, 2). This factor highlights the work of William Sedlacek, the foremost researcher on nonacademic criteria or non-cognitive variables as a significant factor in predicting success, dealing with adversity and diversity, setting and achieving long-term goals, having a strong support person, identifying with a community, and having a positive self-concept and a realistic sense of self (Sedlacek 2017); and Duckworth (2016), who is well-known for her promotion of passion and perseverance (more than genius) and grit. The distance traveled factor or having an “adversity index” focuses on where a student started compared with where they finish; in other words,  a  student who has had to overcome a significant  hurdle(s) in life is more likely to have the ability to deal with challenges in college, whether financial, lack of support or structure, discrimination, or other (Craig 2017). “[T]his concerted effort to evaluate student achievement relative to unique background and resources” is what predicts success (Craig 2017, 2). Researchers such as Sedlacek, Duckworth, and others repeatedly find that the majority of these students are likely to be successful in college, in their careers, as citizens, and in life.

Additional nonacademic measures include more than those traditionally considered by colleges and universities to diversify and predict student success—for example, leadership skills, community service, extracurricular activities, and being a first-generation student. Many campuses are adding a broader range of factors, such as life skills, persistence, deferred gratification/long-term goals, ability to deal with adversity, socioeconomic status, and educational background—based on environmental scans of student populations and what they are missing in terms of predicting and ensuring success.

Being Legally Compliant

One outcome of the legal cases of the past twenty years—in particular, Fisher II, which confirmed that colleges and universities have a compelling interest in ensuring student body diversity—is increased attention and focus on adopting a holistic admission policy and process. Having a race-neutral, holistic practice com- plies with the Supreme Court’s decision in Fisher II.[i] Whether public oir private, and whether they receive any federal funding (including student aid) or not, it is important for colleges and universities to stay abreast of diversity and affirmative action issues at the state and federal levels. They must understand the implications of Fisher II.

The outcome of this case “reflected the importance and value of truly holistic, individualized review of applicants for selective institutions that seek to attain the benefits of diversity” (Coleman 2017, 3). But this is true for all types of institutions, not just those that are selective. It is a matter of ensuring that the students an institution admits will be successful during and after their higher education career.

Resources are particularly helpful to institutions reviewing admission requirements to achieve their missions of diversity or to be race conscious while also being race neutral. The Fisher II decision provides insight colleges and universities can use to ensure that their admission policies are compliant.

In October 2016, Stegmeir wrote an article for the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC) entitled “What Your College Should Know about Fisher II”; it summarizes three key points:

  • Race-neutral recruitment strategies are important. Colleges should anticipate that they may be asked how they attract a diverse applicant pool. In Fisher II, the U.S. Supreme Court noted with approval some of the methods used by the University of Texas at Austin to recruit diverse applicants, including out- reach to minority student populations, regional recruitment centers, and race-neutral scholarships. 
  • Data and analytics matter. Colleges may need to provide evidence that they explored race-neutral alternatives. The court emphasized UT-Austin’s ability to demonstrate through quantitative and qualitative data that race-neutral strategies of achieving diversity were inadequate.
  • Frequent self-evaluation is critical. Just because a race-conscious policy is currently considered constitutionally sound, there’s no guarantee it will remain so indefinitely. Colleges should constantly assess whether they must rely on race-conscious admission practices to achieve their educational goals, or whether race-neutral strategies are sufficient.

Education Counsel has been a national leader in in- forming the higher education community about legal rulings regarding diversity and affirmative action, articulating the implications of those rulings for U.S. colleges and universities, and providing guidance on policy development. Two well-known joint publications by Education Counsel and the College Board regarding higher education diversity are The Playbook: A Guide to Assist Institutions of Higher Education in Evaluating Race- and Ethnicity-Neutral Policies in Support of Their Mission-Related Diversity Goals and Implications from Fisher II: The U.S. Supreme Court’s Guidance for Institutions of Higher Education Regarding Race-Conscious Enrollment Practices. What is unique about The Playbook is that it is designed to help higher education meet diversity goals, evaluate policies to meet “mission-related” diversity goals, and assist with meeting federal compliance requirements. At the forefront of The Playbook is the legal requirement of “strict scrutiny:”[ii]

The strict scrutiny standard of judicial review is based on the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Federal courts use strict scrutiny to determine whether certain types of government policies are constitutional. It is the most rigorous form of judicial review. The U.S. Supreme Court has applied this standard to laws or policies that impinge on a right explicitly protected by the U.S. Constitution, such as the right to vote. The Court has also identified certain rights that it deems to be fundamental rights, even though they are not enumerated in the Constitution.

According to The Playbook, for an institution to meet strict scrutiny, it must establish:


  • A Compelling Interest. This is the end that must be established for maintaining lawful race- and ethnicity-conscious programs…. Federal courts recognize a limited number of interests to justify the consideration of race or ethnicity….
  • Narrow Tailoring. This is the requirement that addresses the means to achieve the compelling interest, with race or ethnicity only in the most limited manner possible to achieve that goal.

    The federal courts examine criteria to see if a pro- gram is achieving that goal, such as:

    ➜ Necessity of using race or ethnicity,

    ➜ Flexibility of the program,

    ➜ Burden on those who do not benefit from the consideration, and

    ➜ Whether the policy has an end point and is subject to periodic review.

    (College Board and Education Counsel 2014).

Figure 1 adapted from The Playbook, is helpful to colleges and universities in their review of their race-conscious/race-neutral practices.



The Playbook is unique not only in that it is laid out like a sports playbook but also in that it goes beyond race and ethnicity to strategies related to socioeconomic status, geographic diversity, first-generation students, and states such as Texas with percentage plans. Perhaps of greatest help is The Playbook’s posing of the following three questions relative to the use of a race- conscious policy:

Sedlacek’s work on noncognitive variables paved the way for the consideration of life skills, adversity, grit, “distance traveled,” socioeconomic status, educational background, and other factors as more significant predictors and indicators of the success and needs of students of diverse backgrounds, cultures, ethnicities, learning styles, income groups, geographic locations, customs, and availability of resources and support.[iv]

Holistic Review as a Success Measure After Admission

Colleges and universities that have added noncognitive variables to their admissions requirements are finding that these variables are associated with improved out- comes and higher retention, particularly for certain populations. The application of noncognitive variables is allowing for earlier intervention methods...The end results is stronger preparation, better orientation programs, and mentoring and coaching programs that start on day one (DeHaemers and Sandlin 2015, 392).

Even institutions that successfully implement a holistic admission process may not be prepared for what may come after they enroll a more diverse group of students. One advantage of implementing a holistic process is that the admission office will have a wealth of information about the students they are admitting— including their strengths and needs. What will the institution do with this information? Knowing students’ needs can help the campus provide assistance and sup- port to ensure that students are successful. Institutions that manage this information and create a process for channeling services will increase student persistence, retention, and graduation rates. A holistic admission process can have an impact far beyond incorporating nonacademic factors in decisions.

Many early adopters are successfully funneling in- formation from the admission process. In recent years, orientation and retention efforts have begun to incorporate holistic reviews to identify the noncognitive factors that can help students succeed during their enrollment and subsequent transition. Student affairs, student services, and advising have all worked with students on noncognitive issues, though typically on a case-by-case or individualized basis. Advances in technology have made tools available that can assist with holistic assessment. Academic and noncognitive factors can be used to help identify and implement strategies and services for increasing student persistence and retention

Educational Testing Service has released Success Navigator,[v] a product that institutions can utilize during orientation to warn key retention staff and faculty when students are experiencing trouble, are at risk, and/or may need additional support with noncognitive factors such as discipline and social adaptation. This “early warning” online system notifies institutions when interventions such as coaching, advising, support, and resources are needed. The assessment provides insight into those factors that have the greatest influence on new students’ academic and personal success.

  • Can the institution achieve its goals without race-conscious policies? Why or why not?
  • How has the institution seriously considered (and, when appropriate, tried) race-neutral alternatives?
  • Could a workable alternative (or alternatives) achieve the same results as race-conscious policies about as well and at tolerable administrative expense? Why or why not? (College Board and Education Counsel 2014).


The second collaborative document, “Implications from Fisher II,” was the more detailed draft regarding the U.S. Supreme Court’s Fisher II decision about race- conscious admission programs allowable under federal law. The key takeaways “provided additional insight and guidance regarding the kind of action necessary to comply with federal nondiscrimination law” (College Board and Education Counsel 2016, 1). “Implications” includes an in-depth guide to implementing policy and resulting practice for U.S. colleges and universities.

The third takeaway focuses on holistic review as a cornerstone and again highlights the in- creased demand in U.S. higher education for successful, research-based, and tested holistic review assessments that are easy to implement, efficient, and do not add significant time to review nor significant workload to admission or other offices. Most important, they need to consider all items listed above, in The Playbook, and in the “Implications” guide. Institutions that do this well are tracking all the measurements of success of any review process, review annually, are staying abreast of legal issues, updates, and research, and, most important, are tracking and documenting the success of students through the entire enrollment funnel, from prospects to successful alumni.

The Education Counsel is conducting work that will help colleges and universities implement holistic re- view within the admission process or once a student is enrolled and plans to release a document grounded in law, policy, research, and best practice.

The Sedlacek Method

William E. Sedlacek, Professor Emeritus, University of Maryland College Park, has made his life’s work (close to forty years) the study of nonacademic success measurements in higher education or noncognitive variables. Sedlacek’s noncognitive assessment method is a strong predictor of retention and student success and is designed to be used with academic measures, thus enabling holistic review of an applicant for admission to a college or university. “The term noncognitive is used here to refer to variables relating to adjustment, motivation and perception, and can be assessed efficiently in a variety of ways, and can be incorporated into any admissions process,” and are applicable for all students (Sedlacek 2004, 2017). In fact, noncognitive variables are critical when assessing nontraditional students. To assess using only traditional academic measurements can be limiting and even unfair in the assessment of these students’ potential (Kalsbeek, Sandlin and Sed­lacek 2013).

Sedlacek’s (2004) eight noncognitive variables are:

  • Positive Self-Concept: Demonstrates confidence, strength of character, determination, and inde­pendence;
  • Realistic Self-Appraisal: Recognizes and accepts any strengths and deficiencies, especially aca­demic, and works hard at self-development. Recognizes need to broaden individuality.
  • Understands and Knows How to Handle the Sys­tem: Exhibits a realistic view of the system based upon personal experiences and is committed to improving the existing system. Takes an assertive approach to dealing with existing wrongs but is not hostile to society nor is a “cop out.” Involves handling any “isms” (e.g., racism, sexism, ageism).
  • Prefers Long-Range to Short-Term or Immediate Needs: Able to respond to deferred gratification; plans ahead and sets goals.
  • Availability of a Strong Support Person: Seeks and takes advantage of a strong support network or has someone to turn to in a crisis or for encouragement.
  • Demonstrated Community Service: Identifies with a community and is involved in community work.
  • Successful Leadership Experience: Demonstrates strong leadership in any area: church, sports, non-educational groups, gang leader, etc.
  • Nontraditional Knowledge Acquired: Acquires knowledge in sustained and/or culturally related ways in any area, including social, personal, or interpersonal.

Hundreds if not thousands of colleges and universities—and not only in the United States—are using the Sedlacek method. Other countries have worked with Sedlacek to address some of the same enrollment and equity issues with which U.S. institutions grapple. The Gates Millennium Scholarship (GMS) program is per- haps most famous for utilizing the Sedlacek method.

The GMS program applies Sedlacek’s noncognitive variables to award 1,000 annual scholarships to talented college or university applicants for the full course of study for an undergraduate degree as well as for graduate study in select disciplines. This successful program seeks to increase diversity in U.S. society, prepare “a diverse cadre of leaders,” provide access and support to those who traditionally and historically have been disadvantaged, and advance the United States into the next millennium. Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the program was established in 1999 for African American, American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian Pacific Islander American, and Hispanic American students who were federal Pell Grant–eligible, citizens, legal permanent residents or nationals of the United States, have a 3.3 high school GPA or higher, have undertaken a rigorous high school curriculum, and complete the noncognitive assessment. The program’s success is unparalleled.[iii]

  • GMS selects 1,000 new scholars each year; more than 20,000 Gates Scholars have been funded since 2000.
  • GMS awarded $934,092,630 in scholarships be- tween 2000 and 2014.
  • The average award was $12,785 between the 2001 and 2014 academic years.
  • The average first-year undergraduate student retention rate is 96.2 percent (active or deferment) among Gates Scholars; the average second-year rate is 93.2 percent (active/deferment).
  • The GMS five-year graduation rate is 82.2 percent; the six-year graduation rate is greater than 86.9 percent.
  • Nearly half of Gates Millennium Scholars (48.5 percent; n=6,281) enroll in graduate school after earning a bachelor’s degree: 60.6 percent in a GMS funded field and 39.4 percent in GMS unfunded fields. 
  • Gates Millennium Scholars have enrolled at 1,751 colleges and universities.
  • 12,959 Gates Millennium Scholars have completed a degree since the program’s inception;10,654 Scholars who started the program as fresh- men have earned an undergraduate degree.
  • Of the active entering freshmen in the 2015 cohort, 40.9 percent (n=399) are attending highly

Uniform Standards: It’s All About Training

In the Fisher II Supreme Court case, Justice Kennedy stated that “if a holistic plan is adopted, reviewers must be trained to ensure uniform standards” (Yudof and Moran 2016). In addition, a 2016 study highlighted in The Chronicle of Higher Education found that “the personal background of admissions officers appeared to play a major role in determining how much they used holistic consideration to promote socioeconomic diversity” (Schmidt 2016). Having built noncognitive training programs at many other institutions, it is clear that the training of the staff who will be reading and scoring the reviews is extremely important. Good training must focus on who is reading and scoring: is it a diverse pool of readers with various backgrounds who can read and score subjective assessments as objectively as possible? Most colleges and universities leave a large portion of the file review to admission counselors, many of whom are themselves recent graduates. While they know the institution well and believe in it, they may find holistic review challenging. “We need to look carefully at whether the practices of admissions offices are consistent with the rhetoric” (Schmidt 2016). In fact, Schmidt (2016) found that alumni counselors were more likely to have a “strong preference for high- achieving candidates from a wealthier background” (2). This is concerning given that 45 percent of the counselors who participated in the study were alumni.

Another interesting outcome of the study pertained to the gender and diversity of the reviewers. Women were more likely to award higher scores and to con- sider lower-income applicants whereas reviewers of color were less likely to admit high-achieving, higher- income applicants (Schmidt 2016). It is clear that all reviewers must be trained and be made aware of how their personal biases may factor into their reviews; the review process itself must have an opt-out option for reviewers. Training must address equity concerns, but “hiring is also crucial” (Schmidt 2016, 2). The review process coordinator must be cognizant of and promote diversity among those who will review applicants. In fact, in addition to admission counselors, the reviewer pool should include other professionals on campus with an interest in the process. Consider inviting staff from student affairs/services, cultural centers, LGBTQA, tutoring or academic assistance, faculty, housing and dining services, health services, other enrollment management offices, campus sports, the career center, and other offices.

A holistic training must provide instruction on how to read, score, and review applications and on how to recognize personal bias. Can a reviewer be fair even if an application expresses viewpoints opposed to a personal belief, or will the reviewer award a lower or higher score on the basis of past experiences or background? Can the reviewer recognize their own implicit biases? Can biases be suspended? If not, is there a process for opting out of reviewing an applicant’s file and assigning another reviewer? This issue suggests why a holistic process may not work: a reviewer’s background or personal bias may skew who is and who is not admitted.

Finally, all reviewers who participate in holistic ad- missions or holistic review once a student is admitted should be required to complete a comprehensive cultural competency training course at least once every couple of years. In fact, all enrollment management staff must be culturally competent. The lack of core cultural competency skills is directly related to poorer holistic reviews and miscommunication with diverse students, faculty, staff, and the public, and it adversely affects retention. Cultural competency[vi] is the “ability to understand, appreciate, and interact with persons from cultures and/or belief systems other than one’s own, based on various factors” and to possess “the knowledge and skills required to manage cross-cultural relationships effectively.” Holistic train- ing needs to ensure cultural competence in all staff; they must have the tools and the mindset for communicating with diverse people in an effective, respectful, and empathetic manner. Often, cultural competency training is available through an institution’s human resources campus training division or campus cultural center. It also may be offered through a higher education training seminar or professional association.


Coleman, A. 2017. Reflecting on What We Know About Diversity in Higher Education and the Consideration of Race in Admissions. Education Counsel. Available at: <>. College Board and Education Counsel. 2014.

The Playbook: A Guide to Assist Institutions of Higher Education in Evaluating Race- and Ethnicity-Neutral Policies in Support of Their Mission-Related Diversity Goals. New York: The College Board.

———. 2016. Implications from Fisher II. Available at: <>.

Craig, R. 2017. A  “distance  traveled”  model for college admissions: Selective colleges should focus less on applicants’ achievements and more on what they’ve over- come. Inside Higher Ed. August 11. Available at: <>.

DeHaemers, J., and M. Sandlin. 2015. Delivering effective admissions operations. In  Handbook of Strategic Enrollment Management, edited by D. Hossler and B. Bontrager. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Duckworth, A. 2016. GRIT: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. New York: Scribner.

Kalsbeek, D., M. Sandlin, and W. Sedlacek. 2013. Employing noncognitive variables to improve admissions and increase student diversity and retention. Strategic Enrollment Management Quarterly. 1(2): 132–150.

Sandlin, M. 2008. The “insight resume:” Oregon State University’s approach to holistic as- sessment. In American Association of Collegiate Registrar’s and Admission Officers, The College Admissions Officer’s Guide. Washing- ton, D.C.: AACRAO.

Schmidt, P. 2016. In admission decisions, the deciders’ own backgrounds play a big role. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Available at: < Decisions-the/236088>.

Sedlacek, W.E. 2017. Measuring Noncognitive Variables; Improving Admissions, Success, and Retention for Underrepresented Students. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Stegmeir, M. 2016. Diversity in Admission: What Your College Should Know About Fisher II.

Yudof, M., and R. Moran. 2016. Race-conscious admissions policies face more tests after ‘Fisher.’ The Chronicle of Higher Education. July 17. Available at: < Race-Conscious-Admissions/237151>.

Michele Sandlin
is currently a Managing Consultant for AACRAO. She previously served as the Director of Admissions and the Campus Visitors Center at Oregon State University (OSU) for fifteen years, during which university enrollment grew by over 67%, while achieving additional goals for diversity and academic preparedness of incoming students. Prior to OSU, Michele served at Pacific University, Portland State University, University of Oregon, and Western State College in Colorado, holding leadership roles in admissions, orientation, records and registration, articulation and financial aid.

During her 38 year career in enrollment services, Sandlin has developed industry-leading expertise in admissions operations, staff management, campus partnerships, transfer articulation agreements/practice/policy, accreditation compliance, graduate and international admissions, holistic admissions, and team building. She has served in state, regional and national leadership positions with AACRAO and with the International Baccalaureate Program, having served as the IB Chair for the Americas College and University Recognition Board.

Sandlin completed her Master of Science degree in 1996 in Higher Education Policy Foundations and Administration at Portland State University. She is a native of the Colorado Rockies, and earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Human Sciences from Colorado State University in 1979.


[ii] Definition retrieved February 13, 2018 from <>.

[iii] See <> for current success statistics>.

[iv] For more information about Sedlacek’s work, noncognitive assessments, and how to use and implement them, see <> or <>.

[vi] Definition retrieved February 13, 2018 from <>.

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