Where Test Scores Meet Military Experience: Holistic Admissions for Non-Traditional Students

RJ Nichol
Oct 17, 2019

Conventional wisdom holds that students attend college in order to acquire the skills which enable them to launch professional careers. But what about a situation in which impressive real-world work experience actually preceded their time on campus? What should that mean for different aspects of higher education, such as course credit and admissions?

That’s precisely the scenario unfolding for Ty Upshaw, who was deployed to Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan and worked in the U.S. Army’s Human Resources Department before he ever stepped foot in a university lecture hall. Now pursuing an undergraduate degree in business at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, Upshaw received college credit from the school for group communication, computer information science, organizational communication and public speaking due to his human resources experience in the military.

The same is true for Kierra Howard, who spent four years as a communication specialist in the Army and received 20 credits from Pikes Peak Community College, also located in Colorado Springs, for that experience.

Upshaw and Howard — who were both profiled in a PBS NewsHour segment by Hari Sreenivasan which aired last fall — benefited from a new Colorado law which allows students to earn college credit for expertise outside the classroom, including in the military. The Colorado Commission on Higher Education officially implemented the legislation in May 2018.

“As faculty, we take seriously our charge of ensuring that students have the skills and knowledge they need to be successful,” said Wayne Artis, chairman of the Colorado Faculty Advisory Council. “We know that today’s students are bringing real life, relevant experience with them to college. Blending prior learning with traditional curriculum to ensure the same results is exciting.”

“This is the right thing to do for service members and veterans,” echoed David Ortiz, a veteran advocate who helped craft the Colorado legislation, in the PBS NewsHour segment. “It makes them feel as if their training and service to this country not only mattered on the bigger sense, but in the particular level, that they’re now getting civilian credit for what they have already demonstrated.”

This year’s new developments in Colorado could have implications that go beyond course credit, including raising the question of how non-traditional pre-college experiences should be factored into higher education admissions for applicants such as members of the military, transfer students and adult learners.

Taking pre-college professional experience into account in admissions would represent the latest frontier in holistic application review, an increasingly popular practice which features an emphasis on the whole applicant and goes beyond conventional academic metrics such as GPA and standardized test scores. This process often includes unconventional application requirements, such as Bennington College “Dimensional Application” or Goucher College’s video application.

An arts school will typically include the submission of a portfolio or the performance of an audition in its application, reasoning that those metrics properly reflect students’ academic experiences at such institutions and ultimately, their careers. Then why, for instance, shouldn’t an undergraduate business program significantly prioritize an applicant’s practical internships or other forms of experiences in high school, much like an MBA program’s admissions process would consider an applicant’s professional experience?

The question isn’t as pressing, however, for traditional undergraduate applicants, as colleges are already accustomed to considering a student’s extracurricular and community/volunteer activities as well as application requirements like essays as relevant factors in admissions decisions. Greater consequences are felt among non-traditional applicants and students, who enter the admissions process already facing an uphill climb: the need to convince academic institutions to buck conventional practices by looking beyond the easy-to-assess and presumably “objective” metrics like grades and standardized test scores.

Adult learners

The broadest category of non-traditional student is the adult learner — applicants ages 24 or 25 and up who are more than four years removed from high school and often don’t possess a high school diploma. Adult learners can be veterans or active-duty military members, or anyone else seeking to complete their education after a substantial amount of time away from an academic setting.

Some schools’ admissions offices specifically express their openness to adult learners, while indicating that their application review standards for such students are rooted in a holistic approach.

Penn State University notes it “has professional staff dedicated to assisting adult learners through the enrollment process” and acknowledges how education “has become a lifelong endeavor that is an essential element of career success” in today’s marketplace.

“Understanding that education improves job performance and enhances marketability, adult learners are enrolling in colleges and universities in record numbers. As an adult student at Penn State, you will not only earn the quality education employers demand, but you will receive the individual attention you deserve,” the University affirms.

Indiana University Bloomington (IU) uses particularly empathic language on adult applicants, stating, “If you’re thinking about coming back to school (or attending for the very first time), we understand the excitement — and the fear — that comes along with it.” Advisors with IU’s Center for Students in Transition (SIT), according to the school, “help students investigate and identify solutions and degree options that make the most sense for their backgrounds and goals.” Further, SIT says it “works with adult learners who have had gaps in their education, including those who began a degree, left college for a number of years and now want to return and complete an undergraduate degree.”

Transfer students

Another category of non-traditional applicant is transfer students, as evaluating transfer applications may call for a different set of standards than assessing freshman candidates.

University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) spells out distinct practices for freshman and transfer applicants. The school states that for freshmen, it implements a holistic review of applications in which “no one piece of information is weighted more heavily over another,” while separately defining a “comprehensive review” process for transfer applicants in which “all academic and personal attributes are considered, but more emphasis is put on academic preparedness for the major.”

The average observer might gloss over this subtle difference in language, but the practical implication for applicants is significant — UC Berkeley specifically abandons the process of holistic review for transfer students, implementing a procedure for transfers which seemingly contains a greater emphasis on traditional academic metrics or in the school’s own words, “academic preparedness.”

This begs the following question: What, exactly, constitutes “academic preparedness?” High grades? Challenging and varied coursework? What about the non-traditional factors like extracurriculars, internships, community involvement and life experiences?

The University of Washington (UW), meanwhile, lists a wide variety of “assessment areas” for transfer applicants such as their GPA “based on all transferable college-level courses attempted, rigor of curriculum and consistency in course completion;” academic goals, preparation for intended major, academic or artistic awards and achievements, community service, work experience, cultural awareness and “perseverance in attaining higher education in spite of personal adversity, disability or economic disadvantage.”

On the surface, UW’s review of transfer applications appears quite holistic in nature. However, the university gives “the highest admission priority” to transfer applicants with an associate degree or with “90 transferable credits taken in preparation for a professional academic major.” UW acknowledges that admission for transfer applicants with fewer than 40 quarter credits “is competitive and limited,” once again underscoring the uphill climb facing non-traditional applicants. Yet if prospective UW transfer students could earn credit for expertise outside the classroom, such as their professional specialties during military service, one could imagine a world in which 90 transferable credits would be much easier to attain.

Fostering diversity

We’ve surveyed the landscape for non-traditional students, while identifying some obstacles they face to admission. But for academic institutions, why does this all matter?

What it comes down to is diversity — and not necessarily in the usual sense of the word. Often, the mention of “diversity” in higher education triggers heated debates on race and its associated admissions policies, such as affirmative action. Holistic application review, however, is a method for fostering a more diverse campus which goes beyond common notions of diversity like a person’s race or country of origin.

The holistic approach builds a broader picture of each applicant, by asking some foundational questions about who they are and what they’d bring to campus: How would this student contribute to the campus community in meaningful ways? How would the unique life experiences that this student is bringing to campus facilitate personal growth for other students, inside and outside the classroom? What would this applicant contribute to his or her field as a future professional?

As veteran advocate Ortiz noted in the PBS NewsHour piece, veterans or active-duty military members come to campus equipped with experiences and accomplishments like “being responsible for multimillion-dollar equipment, being responsible for a dozen men and women, accomplishing a mission, high-intensity, with quick timelines coming up, where lives are on the line, and, obviously, the maturity and life experience that comes with it.”

For a college admissions officer, should those experiences carry more, less or equal weight when they’re evaluated alongside GPA and standardized test scores? At the very least, in a holistic admissions process, that’s food for thought.

RJ Nichol

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