Examining UNC Asheville Admissions

Taking a holistic approach to admissions means UNC Asheville factors in more than numbers to find students with the best fit and grit to succeed in college.

UNC Asheville admissions is a multiple-choice scenario with more than one answer—for students searching for their perfect school and for a university balancing admissions criteria with a creative approach.

A Critical Reading of the SAT 

The Admissions Office at UNC Asheville is not alone in reconsidering the weight of SAT scores. More than 800 four-year colleges have made the test optional in recent years, according to The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, which notes growing concerns about “undermatching,” where students don’t find the best fit at a school where they could succeed.

Multiple Choices for Students Like many UNC Asheville Bulldogs, James Whalen and Juliana Grassia studied their college options carefully to determine the best fit, but what they now know as president and vice president of the Student Government Association is that the university also studied their accomplishments across a broad spectrum of quantitative and qualitative measures.  "People say to have your top choice, middle choice and last choice, but I think that’s a silly system, because no one wants to go to their last choice,” says Whalen, a senior from Charlotte, N.C., with a double major in philosophy and math at UNC Asheville. “I applied to four schools and I got into four schools, but I didn’t have a top and bottom. I had a reach for different things—one was too expensive so I looked for scholarships, one was too far away but I needed to see if I would enjoy it. UNC Asheville ended up as my top choice and the most affordable.”  "When I was applying to schools, I applied to some of the bigger names,” explains New Jersey native and senior French and political science double major Grassia.“I got momentarily focused on the name of the school, not the quality. My dad said, ‘you need to apply to UNC Asheville because it’s you. It’s everything that you believe in, in terms of education.’ So I did, and I don’t regret it. I focused on the content of the university and if it reflected my personal values instead of a big name.”

“It goes along with the trend, but that’s not why we made the decision,” says Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Bill Haggard. “We were looking inward at our own processes and having candid discussions about why some students didn’t persist. We’ve hovered around 80 percent for our freshman to sophomore retention rate. So we looked more closely at the 20 percent to try to discover any patterns. The pattern that we found was that just because someone has a 1400 SAT score doesn’t mean they are going to do well here. So we questioned on what other variables we could place greater emphasis.” 

To understand those shared qualities for the group, UNC Asheville turned to Archer Gravely, a 30-year veteran as the director of institutional research.

“In the statistical models, we find that the high-school achievement measures have more weight than the SAT. The high-school performance measures give a good signal to the student’s motivation,” Gravely says, while stressing that it’s one of many factors to consider. 

“This holistic approach means we don’t rely on any single one measure, but instead we review the student’s academic performance in multiple ways,” explains Pat McClellan, assistant provost for academic administration. “We seek to find strong indicators of personal responsibility and achievement. The trick is, how do you measure that resilience? You know it when you see it, but it’s hard to define in any sort of quantitative way. There’s no resilience test that we are aware of.”

However, there is the SAT, an admissions standard that has been tested through the years and one recently discussed by UNC Asheville in a recalibration of admissions standards.

We read everything—the essays, the recommendations, the transcripts and the test scores ... It’s a more personal approach. One person reads your entire application.”—Shannon Earle, Senior Director of Admissions and Financial Aid

“This recalibration of our criteria makes admissions much more of an art than a science. It’s not just a series of metrics,” says UNC Asheville Provost Joe Urgo. “Finding the talent in our students means we have to go beyond the numbers.”

Literature and Language Professor Dee James, who is also director of the first-year writing program and a UNC Asheville alumna, remembers her own application process and echoes this approach. “I don’t think any one factor is a good predictor. You need to examine an array of factors. Recalibrating makes sense because populations change, so what counts and how it counts and how we look at it and what we ask of our students needs to be revisited. This is a welcome idea, but politically it’s a tricky idea.”

James cites how easy it is to sum up academic quality in a number such as an aggregate or average SAT score for an incoming class—a number that has kept UNC Asheville on par with schools such as UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State. Plus, she’s seen the evolution come full circle, starting with her recruitment in 1969 to integrate the women’s residence halls. 

“We cycle through,” she says. “By the time I had graduated, we were aiming for the more elite and high-end SAT scores. Then we went through a period of trying to serve more local and community needs through rebalancing our admissions practices. When I was a new faculty member 31 years ago, we had a large portion of nontraditional students, with an average age of 27. Then we decided as a liberal arts institution we would make a name for ourselves in the state with higher scores. We continually revisit how to serve well and who we are supposed to serve.”

According to Urgo, that focus on students as individuals remains at the forefront. “It’s also acknowledging the changing demographic of students applying, including first-generation students, and setting a standard that treats them fairly,” he says. “As the American population gets more diverse—multiculturally and geographically—the challenge is about recognizing different ways that intelligence is manifest.”

UNC Asheville still includes the SAT as part of its admission requirements. In fact, the 16 universities in the UNC system have a statewide standard of 800 on math and critical reading set by General Administration for fall 2013, with higher minimums decided by institutions, with some exceptions. This includes a pilot program in fall 2015 at North Carolina Central University, Elizabeth City State University and Fayetteville State University to admit students whose SAT/ACT scores are below the system’s minimum requirements but whose high-school GPAs are above the current standards.

Each university also may apply for a chancellor’s exception to this minimum for individual students, limited to 1 percent of new applicants accepted. 

“We’ve never used a chancellor’s exception,” says Senior Director of Admissions and Financial Aid Shannon Earle. “But we take a critical look at our approach and find creative ways to make sure we are serving our students. We’ve found that you can tell more in the four-year portfolio and GPA about a student’s motivation and resilience than you can from four hours of taking a test.”

Writing the Next Chapter in Higher Education Admissions 

Students have more than a test score, GPA and transcripts to make an impression, and in many cases the essay is the place on the application where students can show how they are the best fit for UNC Asheville. 

“We read everything—the essays, the recommendations, the transcripts and the test scores,” says Earle. “Admissions counselors do not use computer software to filter applications. It’s a more personal approach. One person reads your entire application.”

That’s why admissions counselors at UNC Asheville often know students by name the first time they come into the office for a tour or an interview or call with questions. They have about 24 pages to get to know each student, for more than 2,500 applicants. These details of a student’s achievements are something faculty are interested in as well.

“What I think most faculty members want are students who are committed, hard-working, responsible, well-rounded people, who intend to create lives of meaning and who embrace their responsibility to contribute to the betterment of the world as global citizens,” says Dee Eggers, associate professor of environmental studies and chair of the faculty senate. “Now, most high-school students don’t talk about such things, but we see evidence of those tendencies in the choices they make. For example, the courses students chose to take are quite telling. Are they in AP Physics and AP English Literature? Then they probably know how to work hard and are invested in their own futures. A background in athletics also is a good indicator of work ethic, responsibility, discipline—all factors that contribute to success in the classroom.”

Of course, the process and the questions have changed. Just 10 years ago, UNC Asheville used paper applications. Now, everything is online, with options for the College Foundation of North Carolina (CFNC), common app, and homegrown application, as Earle calls it. Other schools, such as Goucher College, have pushed the paper application even further, now accepting student videos instead of test scores, transcripts and recommendations. 

UNC Asheville hasn’t taken that digital step yet, but creative students can still find a way to stand out and get in. 

“With this holistic approach, we’ve seen an increase in accepts in Western North Carolina by 9 percent and an increase in self-reported underrepresented students,” says Earle. “That’s a benefit, but that was not the driving force. The driving force is to find the well-rounded student who will succeed at UNC Asheville. By doing that, we’ve opened up the door to a lot of students who will make a difference here and in the world.”