Spring Admissions: Expanding Access or Skirting Accountability?

More than one in five first-year students at the University of Maryland now start their studies in the spring instead of the fall, according to this recent article by Nick Anderson in the Washington Post. This seems to be an unusually high percentage among colleges and universities, but the plan makes a lot of sense. Even at selective institutions, some students will leave at the end of the first semester, and more space opens up on campus after other students graduate, study abroad, or take on internships. It can be a way to maximize revenue by better utilizing facilities throughout the academic year.

However, the article also notes that the SAT scores of spring admits are lower at Maryland. Among students starting in spring 2015, the median score was roughly a 1210 (out of 1500), compared to about 1300 for the most recent available data for fall admits in 2012. These students’ test scores suggest that spring admits are well-qualified to succeed in college, even if they didn’t quite make the cut the first time around. (It’s much less realistic to expect high-SAT students to defer, given the other attractive options they likely have.) This suggests Maryland’s program may have a strong access component.

However, deferring admission to lower-SAT students could be done for other reasons. Currently, colleges only have to report their graduation rates for first-time, full-time students who enrolled in the fall semester to the federal government. (That’s one of the many flaws of the creaky Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, and one that I would love to see fixed.) If these spring admits do graduate at lower rates, the public will never know. Additionally, many college rankings systems give colleges credit for being more selective. With the intense pressure to rise in the U.S. News rankings, even a small increase in SAT scores can be very important to colleges.

So is Maryland expanding access or trying to skirt accountability systems for a number of students? I would probably say it’s more of the former, but don’t discount the pressure to look good to the federal government and external rankings bodies. This practice is something to watch going forward, even though better federal data systems would reduce its effectiveness of shaping a first-year class.

[Cross-posted at Kelchen on Education]

Robert Kelchen

Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education in the Department of Education Leadership, Management, and Policy at Seton Hall University, is data manager of the Washington Monthly College Guide.