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September 1, 2014

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Diversity takes hit for higher academic standards

UNLV and UNR administrators are flummoxed, trying to improve their campuses' reputations by raising academic standards without undermining campus diversity.

Their concern is real. A new state higher education report shows that requiring higher grades for admission to UNLV and UNR took a toll on minority enrollment last fall.

The number of students admitted to UNLV declined for every ethnic group, including whites, between fall 2005 and fall 2006, but black and Hispanic students were disproportionately affected. The number of students admitted fell 26 percent for black students and 18 percent for Hispanics, compared with 4 percent for whites, according to the report by the Nevada System of Higher Education. Actual enrollment for whites increased slightly, falling for all other ethnic groups.

Hispanic admissions and enrollment also dropped at UNR, but its small enrollment of black students increased slightly.

The effect at the urban Las Vegas university is so great that President David Ashley will ask regents in August to postpone the second phase of the heightened standards to 2009.

That will give he and UNR President Milton Glick more time to tweak the admissions process and do a better job of recruiting minority students, Ashley said.

Regents increased the admissions requirement in 2006 to an overall grade - point average of 2.75, up from 2.5, and further required students to earn that GPA in 13 core classes of English, math, natural sciences and social sciences. The GPA requirement was to jump to 3.0 - equivalent to a B - in 2008, to increase the selectivity of UNLV and UNR and advance their research mission.

Studies showed that students with higher GPAs tended to perform better at the university level, whereas students with lower GPAs benefited by starting their college education at a community college where they would get more hands-on attention. Better-prepared students, regents theorized, would result in better retention and graduation rates at the state's universities.

Alternatively, starting this fall, students with SAT scores of 1,040 or higher or composite ACT scores of 22 or higher could gain admissions without meeting the GPA requirement.

Ultimately, UNLV may have to adjust the admissions process to look at factors other than just GPA and test scores, Ashley said.

UNLV officials will look at adding criteria to the admissions process, using the Gates Millennium Scholarship criteria and the University of California, Berkeley , admissions criteria as examples.

Students who miss the current cut offs at UNLV can apply for admission under alternative criteria, but not until they've been denied admission. That's something Ashley wants to make automatic.

"UNLV is committed to quality and we think this (the GPA increase) is a long - term part of UNLV achieving its mission," Ashley said. "However it cannot be at the disadvantage of any group. We need to align the admissions processes to make sure that we get well - prepared, successful students from all different groups."

How to increase the quality and selectivity of a student body while not cutting off access to students unprepared for college is an issue nationwide, hence the various affirmative action and other programs for socially and economically disadvantaged students. The increased admissions standards at UNLV are particularly controversial because , for more than 45 years, UNLV was the only four-year institution in town and therefore chose to accept any student with at least a 2.5 grade - point average.

Now that Nevada has a state college with easier admission standards, UNLV wants to burnish its reputation by elevating campus scholarship.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada and minority leaders loudly protested the GPA increase when it was suggested in 2001 and again in 2006 when regents advanced the timetable to implement the second phase in 2008. They said it was elitist and would hurt minority and low-income students. Chancellor Jim Rogers and regents agreed to reconsider the decision if data showed minority students were adversely affected.

ACLU and minority leaders resisted saying "we told you so" when the report was released Thursday but said they were in favor of delaying the second increase by more than a year because students needed more time to adjust .

Anecdotal data suggest a bigger challenge for students than reaching the elevated GPA requirements is in meeting the core class requirements in high school. Students and parents need to better understand what it takes to go to college and the system needs to partner with the Clark County School District to make sure students are prepared, officials say.

"We want more students going to college, not less," said Hannah Brown, president of the Urban Chamber of Commerce. "I don't like to dumb down anything, but I also don't want our kids to be excluded from the college experience."

Raising the admission standards to be more selective is "a very new concept for Nevada," said Jane Nichols, vice chancellor for academic and student affairs.

Still, Nichols does not embrace an admissions process such as the one adopted by the University of California.

There, admissions officers select a set number of students from a pool of qualified applicants based on a range of criteria. That works for California because it has a variety of college choices to satisfy a broad spectrum of students, Nichols said.

"Given the realities of Nevada, with a history of a low college-going rate, low college - participation rate, low number of college-educated citizens and parents, our model of admitting all students who qualify and who are likely to be successful is the best model," Nichols said.

On the other hand, UNLV's lack of selectivity is one reason why many of Nevada's best and brightest students attend out-of-state universities, said Neal Smatresk, UNLV's new executive vice president and provost.

"I think if you set the bar too low, you put yourself at a competitive disadvantage, and are attractive to fewer, not more students," Smatresk said.

UNLV has hired a vice president of diversity, Christine Clark, to help improve the recruitment and retention of students, and will bring regents a list of ways the school plans to mitigate the effect of the GPA increase, Smatresk and Clark said, including partnering more with the School District. The university is also looking at ways to increase its need-based aid. Changes to eligibility for the Millennium Scholarship may have been a contributing factor to the enrollment declines, Smatresk and Nichols said.

The universities do not yet have complete data for fall 2007, or any data on how the increase might have improved retention or graduation rates. There also is no data yet on whether those students not admitted to UNLV are enrolling at Nevada State College or College of Southern Nevada.

"I think he's (Ashley) making the right call in postponing implementation of the higher GPA," said Sylvia Lazos, a Boyd School of Law professor specializing in race issues. "We still haven't digested the impact of the first year."

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