Context counts: Holistic admissions boosts college success and diversity, U-M study shows

September 18, 2023

Indicators of high school grades and standardized test scores that consider the levels of school, neighborhood and family resources available to students are strongly associated with students’ success in college, according to new University of Michigan research.

Published in AERA Open, the study by Michael Bastedo, U-M professor of education, and colleagues emerges against the backdrop of the recent Supreme Court decision to ban race-conscious admissions in higher education.

According to Bastedo, who is also the associate dean of research and graduate studies at U-M’s Marsal School of Education, universities and colleges have adopted holistic admissions practices to be fairer to students from many different varying high schools and neighborhoods because schools are highly stratified in this country.

“There’s a lot of inequality among high schools and neighborhoods,” he said. “If you’re trying to understand what would be fair to students when being evaluated, you need to look not just at what they’re providing but what context they’re coming from. What is their neighborhood like? What kind of teaching would they have had? What kinds of school opportunities would they have had? And how that plays out in all the different parts of the application they would be presenting.”

The study found that contextualizing high school grades and test scores may allow institutions to identify students from diverse backgrounds with strong academic achievement who will graduate.

“These contextualized measures were a strong indicator of their propensity to succeed at college,” Bastedo said. “Schools that are adopting more holistic and contextualized practices in their admissions practices can feel comforted by the fact that there is a good relationship between the data they’re looking for in the admissions file and how students will ultimately succeed once they reach their college.

“Not only is it a legally permissible way for institutions to promote equity, it also helps admissions officers identify students who are very likely to succeed.”

To date, contextualized review has been adopted at a minority of colleges and mostly at selective institutions. The new study indicates that contextualized high school performance measures could be helpful to a much broader range of colleges.

“While 95% of selective institutions use some form of holistic review, less selective institutions may also have reasons to evaluate students in context to improve their retention and graduation rates,” Bastedo said.

For the study, the authors used data drawn from an anonymous Midwestern state’s education department database, which provided data from all public high schools within the state, the state’s ACT test database and the state’s 15 public universities.

Overall, the high school data covers 2.3 million high school students. The state was chosen because its education department collected all high school transcripts for students graduating from high schools from 2010 to 2015 and mandated the ACT test for all high school juniors during this period.

“These findings extend our knowledge of the relationship between students’ contextualized high school performance and college success, which has so far mostly been limited to studies of class rank,” Bastedo said. “This is particularly important as more institutions read applications in context as part of their holistic admissions practices.”

The study also found that contextualized high school GPA had a stronger relationship with success than contextualized standardized test scores.

“It is important that parents and students know what is happening in the admissions process at many colleges,” Bastedo said. “These offices are trying to treat every applicant fairly, with respect to what opportunities that they have had. If they take advantage of more opportunities, students will be more likely to be admitted to the college of their choice but also more likely to succeed in the college of their choice.”

Bastedo and co-authors Emma Bausch, Bo-Kyung Byun and Yiping Bai, all at the University of Michigan, and Mark Umbricht at the University of North Carolina, are unaware of a similar quantitative, large-scale, statewide study that has examined the relationship between contextualized achievement and college success outcomes.

Bastedo noted that future research should incorporate other measures to examine students’ contribution in a more diverse range of college and post-college outcomes, such as employment, community contribution, and graduate and professional school participation.