Education
6:10 am
Thu June 7, 2012

New High Schools Pose Challenge For College Admission Officers

Tens of thousands of high school seniors will graduate this week across North Carolina. In a few months, many will start college. Not only will that be the next step in their educational lives, but also the end of a college search process that, for some, took years. It’s a process that has gotten more and more complicated, both for students and for the people who read the college applications. The rapid expansion in the number of high schools in the state is having unintended consequences in college admissions.

Dave DeWitt: The whole college selection thing was supposed to be easy for Carson Rouse. She had been tagging along on college tours with three older sisters since she was nine years old. So when it came her turn to look, she was pretty sure she wanted a smaller campus, maybe something out of state. But, like many teenagers, she changed her mind and picked a place exactly the opposite, UNC-Chapel Hill.

Now, with graduation this week from Raleigh Charter High School and starting UNC around the corner, her head is swirling a little bit.

Carson Rouse: I’m a little nervous just because it’s going to be so different going from a small school to a really, really big school. But I’m more excited than anything else. Just anticipation waiting for everything to happen.

Carson has benefited from attending one of the most prestigious and well-regarded public high schools in the state. But when it first started in 1999, no one knew much about Raleigh Charter High, including college admissions officers.

Nadine Askins was the school’s first college counselor. She spent a lot of time in the early days advocating for her students and patiently answering questions from college admissions officers about what a charter school was. Now, it’s a different dynamic…

Nadine Askins: Well it’s quite fun to have them call you and ask you if they can come and visit instead of calling them or writing them and asking them if they would like to come and visit our school.

Raleigh Charter High may be a known quantity now, but that’s not the case yet for other schools. In the last decade, the number of public high schools in North Carolina has grown by 30 percent. And they represent a wide array of schools.

Steve Farmer: Middle college high school, early college high schools, charter schools of every variety. Some of them that focus on a particular curriculum, some of them that focus on a particular kind of student or a student from a particular background. Really everything from soup to nuts.

Steve Farmer is the vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions at UNC-Chapel Hill. When a student from one of the state’s nearly 500 high schools applies to UNC-Chapel Hill, it goes through his office. And students are applying in record numbers – nearly 30,000 last year alone.

Farmer: The more we know about the schools, the more we know about the communities, the fairer we can be to each candidate, and the fairer the comparisons we can make across all the schools in the state.

Many of the new schools that have sprung up have been started as sort of educational experiments – to see what works and what doesn’t. But real students are coming through them as they work out the kinks, and it’s fallen to college admissions officers to become a de facto judge of how the students, and thus the schools, are doing.

Farmer: When we don’t immediately understand, or think we understand, what’s going on within the walls of a school, we have to slow down and we have to take more time. When we have more candidates, we have to find more time in the day. So if we have to slow down and we have more people to evaluate, it means more time and more energy.

With so many different educational backgrounds, it might seem easiest for admissions decisions to fall back on something common and known, like SAT or ACT test scores. But Farmer says that would be a disservice to students.

Farmer: The truth is we rely less on testing than we did 5 or ten years ago. It takes a lot more than a test score to get a student ready to thrive here. And it takes a lot more than a test score to get a student ready to contribute to the experience of his or her classmates.

Fairly evaluating students - and the schools they attend - will only get more challenging. Cutbacks to higher education have meant fewer visits by admissions officers to high schools, and more college applications being read by temporary admissions employees.

And last year, the State Legislature eliminated the cap on charter schools, so the number of new schools will likely grow even more dramatically in the next few years.