Can Psychology Help in Admitting the Best Students?

Put yourself in the shoes of the admissions director at a selective, highly respected college with a narrow academic focus – science, math, and engineering. How could you improve the likelihood that the students you’ll offer admission to will be the best of the many who applied? You already look at SAT and ACT scores, on which most of your applicants do very well, but what if you could find another criterion for evaluating them, one that would help you make the close calls?

That is precisely the position of Jim Goecker of Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology (RHIT). As we learn in this Inside Higher Ed story, he has decided that RHIT admissions should be based partially on the answers that applicants give on a battery of questions intended to shed light on an aspect of the applicant’s psychology, specifically the degree to which the student exhibits a “locus of control.” That is to say, how strongly they feel that they’re in control of their destinies.

RHIT is located in Terre Haute, Indiana and already admits a very strong, academically focused student body. (The median SAT math score is 710.) Still, Goecker believes that the school would be improved by preferring students who appear to have the “right” psychology.

RHIT is a private school and it ought to be free to use whatever admissions criteria it wants. (I say “ought to” because it’s possible that the school will come under fire from organizations that regard a preference for students who believe they’re in control of their lives as a kind of discrimination against those who seem to be more fatalistic.) And unlike preferences for students based on factors having nothing to do with academics – race and ethnicity – this psychological profiling at least might identify students who are marginally better.

But why not use application essays to get a more “holistic” look at each student? Goecker rightly gives them the back of his hand, noting that they’re often coached if not actually ghost-written. Even when the essays are entirely genuine, evaluating them is very subjective.

While the battery is probably better than a dubious essay, the kinds of questions that students will have to answer are rather murky. Consider this one: “There are some subjects in which I could never do well.” Does a “no” answer indicate that the student has that desirable “locus of control” or does it indicate a realistic assessment of his or her limitations?

Or how about this question: “For some courses, it is not important to go to class.” Answering “yes” might indicate student confidence (while I was in law school, some students hardly ever attended class but did very well) but it might just as well show that the student overestimates his ability to master course material without help.

Or this: “What I learn is more determined by course requirements than by what I want to learn.” It would appear that answering “no” shows that the student exhibits “control” – confidently pursuing his own quest for knowledge instead of being shackled to those limiting “course requirements.” But why should it be a mark against a student to acknowledge that throughout high school, he or she was content to master the material covered in the course?

Experimenting with the criteria for acceptance is part of the free market’s discovery process. RHIT has an incentive to identify the best students. But color me skeptical that this quest for psychological clues as to which students are the best will accomplish much.

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George Leef

George Leef is Director of Research for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

One thought on “Can Psychology Help in Admitting the Best Students?”

  1. I have a BS in chemical engineering from Purdue and ten years’ experience as a project engineer with a major pharmaceutical house. Subsequently with a Ph.D. in educational psychology, also from Purdue, I have twenty-five years’ experience in teaching professional education at IUPUI. My background and experience in both engineering and education tell me that psychological assessment would be worthless in predicting student success in higher education anywhere.

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