Quantitative evaluations, which once reigned supreme in college admissions, are now making room for “noncognitive” measures for evaluating prospective students.
Noncognitive measurements have risen in popularity in recent years as a way to evaluate applicants. These measurements provide an alternative way to assess students, eschewing traditional “cognitive” factors, such as high school GPA and SAT scores, in favor of intangibles such as integrity and communication skills. Currently, schools including Oregon State University, DePaul University and Eastern Washington University have begun complementing traditional admissions measures with some form of noncognitive assessment.
Despite the increasing prevalence of noncognitive measures, Duke has no plans to adopt any of them in the admissions process in the near future, said Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Christoph Guttentag. The dearth of understanding regarding the usefulness of such measures makes it difficult to predict whether they would be useful for Duke, he added. Either way, the current admissions process already takes into account many of the characteristics evaluated by noncognitive measures.
“On one level, we’ve always used noncognitive measures,” Guttentag said. “The decision to admit someone to Duke has never been made simply on the basis of academic or strictly quantifiable characteristics or attributes.”
One noncognitive measure already in use is the Personal Potential Index, developed by the Educational Testing Service. Individuals asked to recommend their students assign scores between one and five in six categories: communication skills, ethics and integrity, knowledge and creativity, planning and organization, teamwork and resilience. The average score in each category is then used by the school to which the student is applying in order to obtain a better understanding of the student’s strengths and weaknesses. The PPI has gained traction in graduate school admissions processes in particular.
Highly selective colleges, such as Duke and its peer institutions, have assessed the personal qualities of applicants for “at least 50 years,” Guttentag noted. Less selective colleges may be more likely to add noncognitive measures to their admissions decisions.
Steve Nowicki, dean and vice provost of undergraduate education, said that noncognitive measures have the potential to be useful, but only if implemented correctly.
“That’s true of anything we use in our admissions decisions,” Nowicki said. “You can use SAT scores right or you can use them wrong. If you say it’s all about SATs, you’d be using it wrong, for example, because that’s just one measure.”
The decision to incorporate noncognitive measures into Duke’s admissions process could rely on how accurately such measures are able to identify personal qualities, said Lee Baker, dean of academic affairs of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, noting that it would be difficult to assign a point value to a trait like leadership.
“I would be skeptical about any sort of exam,” said Baker, who also serves as associate vice provost of undergraduate education.
The tendency to view cognitive and noncognitive attributes in a binary fashion is problematic, warned David Malone, director of the Service Learning Program and associate professor of the practice of education, in an email Thursday. Both contribute to an individual’s chances for success in life, he added.
Duke has enjoyed success at selecting applicants with diverse talents and backgrounds under the current admissions process, Baker added.
“If all the undergraduates were the same, if we just took all the best SATs or something, it would be a much duller place and a much less vibrant learning community,” Nowicki said. “We’ve always gone well beyond the numbers in trying to craft a good class—and to the extent that these new measures might help us do that—that’d be fabulous.”