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October 22, 2014

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UNLV wants to get away from the basics

Each semester Elaine Bunker tries to pack her 15-week university class full of lessons her students didn't learn in high school.

A typical student in Bunker's remedial English class at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas is unable to write a cohesive sentence, often writes in sentence fragments and isn't familiar with even the most common English terms.

"What I'm teaching is high school level English, and it would be nice if we could get it back into some of the high schools," Bunker said.

Bunker is essentially teaching what some derisively refer to as the "13th grade."

Each semester UNLV offers 66 remedial courses in English and math to students who aren't ready for college courses. About 35 percent of all entering freshman attend these classes, many of them minority students, according to UNLV's Office of Institutional Analysis.

State university officials say they don't want to be in the remediation business, and under a controversial proposal, they want to raise the minimum grade-point level for incoming freshmen from 2.5 to 2.75. Students transferring from the Community College of Southern Nevada would see the GPA requirement go from 2.0 to 2.5.

The university system regents will hear the plan Thursday, and the proposal has come under increasing pressure from critics who say it would increase the number of dropouts and deny minorities a chance at a college education.

"I don't know of any other state that just uses one criteria for admissions," said Joni Finney, vice president of the National Center for Public Policy in Higher Education, a nonprofit group based in San Jose, Calif. "To me, it sounds like UNLV and Nevada just want the cream and what they really should be doing is accommodating as many good students as they can."

But the universities say the plan to raise the educational bar is designed to heighten the educational experience by freeing more professors to teach college-level courses, and in the process, the universities' statures would improve.

"The taxpayers are not just paying for students to come into the university and leave it, they are paying for success," said UNLV President Carol Harter.

There's no doubt there would be immediate changes.

If the new standards were applied today, this year's entering freshman class at UNLV would be 22 percent smaller, there would be 27 percent fewer transfer students, and approximately 23 percent of all admitted minorities would not be admitted.

In other states, raising the bar has worked over the long run. Oklahoma, Georgia and California have all increased their standards within the last decade and in each case, enrollment increased.

Oklahoma, which has 14 four-year institutions, raised the bar on incoming test scores in 1990 and required students to carry a 3.0 GPA. The state saw minority enrollment increase by 8 percent while overall enrollment steadily increased, according to an April 2000 impact report released by the Oklahoma State System of Higher Education. Similar results happened in Georgia, which brought in sweeping reforms in 1995, requiring incoming students to have a 3.0 GPA and a score of at least 1,000 out of 1,600 on the SAT. The state also offered a HOPE scholarship to students with a "B" average in high school to increase access to higher education.

Georgia also required high school students to take more math and started an outreach program for minority students. The state saw its minority enrollment jump as well.

"You put together the whole mix of having better prepared students, better institutions and the HOPE scholarship, and you wind up getting a better educated state," said Dan Papp, senior vice chancellor for academics and fiscal affairs at the University System of Georgia. "Our experience has been that when you heighten the bar, people jump higher."

Georgia has seen college entrance exam scores increase, and the state has seen its rank among national colleges climb.

Papp said that prestige has followed. Georgia is one of two states that has more than one institution ranked among the top 20 public research institutions in the country, according to the U.S. News & World report rankings.

While Harter said that going up in the rankings is not driving the decision to raise admissions requirements, it is likely to be a positive side effect of becoming more selective.

One educational expert calls the rankings the "arms race of the educational world" and cautions those in higher education to look at the whole picture, like high school curriculums as well as considering the use of tests, grades and other means to determine admission to a university.

Critics point to California, which has had a backlash after increasing university admissions standards several times.

In 1992, standards were tightened in California to increase both GPA requirements and test scores . The change eliminated an additional 12 percent from the normal pool of applicants. At the same time, tuition was increased by 40 percent.

Two years later college attendance in the state dropped by 40 percent, affecting the minority community hard, according to news reports. To add to it, the state's practice of admitting on the basis of racial preferences ended.

The university system is now putting counter measures in place to give more students, especially minorities, more access.

Minority groups say that's important because traditionally, blacks and Hispanics have lower grade point averages that are linked to their tendency to hold jobs through high school. An estimate 53 percent of blacks are expected to contribute financially to their families as compared to 23 percent of whites, according to a U.S. Department of Education study released in 2000.

Higher tuitions nationally, coupled with lower federal Pell grants for needy students are an obstacle for minorities who want to go to college, the report said.

"We know that whenever you increase admission standards for minority and low-income students, it's going to have a disproportionate effect on minorities," said Joyce Payne, director of the office of advancement of public black colleges for the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges.

CCSN student Kaybee McClarine, who is black, is one of those students. By age 15, he was holding a job to help his family make ends meet. McClarine said it was the same way with most of his friends.

"That's just the way it had to be," McClarine said. "My mother was not in the same position (financially) as she is now."

A way to even the playing field, Payne said, is to broaden admissions policies.

Harter, UNLV's president, claims there are already several routes to get into a university. The first is to enter straight from high school. Students can also submit high test scores for consideration along with their GPA, but tests, so far are not part of the entrance requirements.

The others transfer from the community college or apply under the special admissions policy.

Special admissions constitute 6 percent of the overall applicant pool, but university officials may expand that to 10 percent. Those who do not meet the minimum admissions requirement can demonstrate a special talent; have a high ACT or SAT score or a set of special circumstances. Most who apply under this policy get in, Harter said.

But Nevada is set apart from most states because of the lack of required standardized tests. Officials say, they aren't likely to expand its admissions policy to require college entrance exams. Studies have shown that historically black students score 200 points lower on the SAT than white students.

"Those tests have raised some issues that there is a greater risk with people who have English as a second language," said Jane Nichols, Nevada's higher education chancellor.

The newest test, the SAT II, is getting good reviews, and minorities seem to do better on it. Nichols said that test isn't likely to be used either.

So far, six members of Nevada's 11-member board of regents have expressed a concern with the increase in GPA. The vote is scheduled for Thursday. If approved, this would make the second time the university system has increased its GPA admissions requirement, according to Mike Sauer, UNLV's associate vice president for administration.

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