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Rethinking Admissions and Scholarship Selection for Equity in Higher Ed

Kevin Byrne

This is anything but a typical college application season. High schools across the country adjusted grading policies amid school closures and virtual learning, while safety precautions shut down standardized testing locations. Many students were left with incomplete grades and a series of cancelled test dates. In response, some colleges and scholarship providers are no longer factoring standardized test scores and GPAs into admissions or selection decisions, at least for this year.

Students won’t be reduced to a few numbers on an application — and I hope that’s a change that is here to stay. Without broader context, standard application metrics can put many deserving students at a disadvantage and exacerbate inequities in our higher education system. Consider the student who has a part-time job or spends time caring for siblings while his peers are hitting the books and going to tutoring. It’s no surprise that students from low-income backgrounds don’t have as compelling “numbers” when compared to their more affluent peers.

As higher education professionals and scholarship providers, our decisions impact an individual student’s ability to enroll in and pay for college — and when inequities are built into the process, entire communities are left behind. That’s why it is so critical for us to get this right.

Read on to learn how the Dell Scholars program approaches a holistic application review, along with ideas we’ve found helpful for other scholarship providers and admissions offices that are looking to adapt their practices.

GPA: Grit, Potential, and Ambition

At the Dell Scholars program, our selection process has always been designed to prioritize students who are better than their numbers indicate. The program’s ideal candidate demonstrates the drive to succeed despite personal obstacles, and we seek a unique “GPA” of grit, potential, and ambition in our candidates:

  • GRIT by overcoming personal challenges in their lives
  • POTENTIAL by participating in college readiness programs and seeking out academic rigor
  • AMBITION by preparing themselves and planning for their dream of graduating with a college degree

Grit is the stick-to-it attitude that helps a student stay focused and work hard until they succeed. And it’s in no short supply among applicants to the Dell Scholars program, which awards 500 scholarships each year to students who are Pell-eligible and often the first in their family to attend college. Many have overcome tremendous adversity along their journey to college. They are self-motivated and bending over backwards to prioritize their education, even while balancing a part-time job, struggling with housing insecurity, or caring for a disabled parent, to share just a few scholar stories.

Grit isn’t a quality that is readily apparent on a transcript, or a list of extracurriculars — but it’s one that should be prized in prospective college students and prioritized in their evaluation. Ask about responsibilities at home and work, and value them equally alongside extracurricular activities.

Now, let’s turn to an applicant’s high school transcript. Are your selection processes encouraging students to play it safe and safeguard their grade point average (GPA), or to challenge themselves academically? At the Dell Scholars program, we select for evidence of hard work, and our ideal candidate has pushed themselves by taking rigorous college-level courses such as AP, IB, and dual credit/enrollment, even if they didn’t make high grades in those courses.

Our program’s minimum GPA requirement is a 2.4. Never in our history have we collected standardized test scores, and a perfect academic transcript is just not our priority. But by prioritizing grit, potential, and ambition in our scholarship selection, we have built a network of scholars that is graduating at a rate of 80%, twice the national average compared to their peers — and going on to do incredible things in the world. Deprioritizing some of their traditional metrics wasn’t our doing them a favor; rather, it helped us identify the strengths that truly set these students apart. Skip the standardized test scores and perfect GPAs and look at the rigor of a student’s courses.

Aspiring college students have a lot on their plates. On top of academics, family responsibilities, and extracurricular activities, college and scholarship applications can be labor-intensive and require a significant time commitment. At the Dell Scholars program, we strive to keep our application brief and targeted — our goal is to understand each applicant, not to weed out deserving candidates through hours of data entry. Additionally, our application is on the Scholar Snapp data standard so that students can save time applying for other scholarships. In just a few clicks, they can import or export completed data fields to a College Board Scholarship Search account to re-use their information from one application to another. Keep applications and essay questions short and targeted. Minimize barriers for potential applicants.

A college education can unlock economic opportunity and a path to prosperity for generations to come — and it all starts with an admissions application.

Not every student has the opportunity to attend an affluent, well-resourced high school, much less access to private tutoring or SAT prep courses. But every student has the capacity to work hard, be tenacious, and aspire to a brighter future. And every student deserves an equitable college admissions and selection process that recognizes the value they bring to the table. It’s time that we stop undervaluing the potential of so many deserving students through biases and assumptions that are built into our selection models.

Just as we continue to evaluate and adapt our selection process each year, we encourage our colleagues in higher education to do the same. Together, we can work towards and achieve greater equity in our admissions and selection processes, so that high-potential students aren’t left behind.