Open admissions blows away unfair barriers to university access

Denying that people have the potential to succeed before offering them any training contradicts what education is all about, says Elisa Stephens

December 18, 2022
A security guard blocks a doorway, symbolising university access
Source: iStock

A question I often ask myself is why so many US universities erect barriers that prevent diverse students from accessing a quality higher education.

The high board scores, grades and portfolios that are a prerequisite of entry to higher education do not always reflect potential; all too often, they reflect circumstance. That puts at a disadvantage not only racial and ethnic minorities but also those with disabilities, those from lower socio-economic backgrounds and those whose life experiences have simply taken them down paths less travelled and fraught with obstacles.

Achieving a bachelor’s degree is a defining moment for Americans’ economic future. The US median worker with a college degree makes 84 per cent more money than someone with only a high school degree, and the unemployment rate for over-25s with a college degree is just 2.1 per cent.

That is why the art and design university I run does not impose any entry standards. Our students are self-proclaimed artists and designers. Often, they come from communities where high schools are sub-par and from households where there is no educational support or money for after-school art classes where portfolios can be created. Many were the square peg that would not or could not fit into the round hole of public education. Either they needed special education opportunities that weren't available or, as artists, they just plain hated traditional education and checked out.

While roughly half are Gen Z, the other half are older people who deferred education for economic reasons or are returning after a hiatus. Many hold full- or part-time jobs to support themselves and their families. Don’t they deserve the same chances everyone else gets?

In some quarters, our open admissions policy is seen as an attempt to exploit those who are less qualified for higher education: an old-fashioned money grab. This baffles me. Yes, we are a for-profit institution, but I don’t believe it is exploitative to admit students based on what they say they will do now and in the future, rather than what they did in the past. I think it’s liberating. Why shouldn’t people who believe in themselves be given the chance to explore those beliefs?

Some pundits argue that when an institution opens its doors to all who desire a higher degree, they raise the hopes and take the money of those who will not succeed in graduating. But while there are, inevitably students who won’t meet the required standards over the course of their student journey, we have countless examples of students who wouldn’t have been admitted to a selective institution but who found their place, attended classes, did the work, attained the degree and went on to achieve success with some of the world's most admired and creative brands.

During Covid, when it became dangerous for students to sit for the SAT and ACT, first-class universities in their droves suddenly decided that exam scores were not the final measure of college readiness and admitted them based on other criteria. And in May 2021, the University of California system became the most prominent institution to decide to no longer accept SAT and ACT scores as part of their application process. This was after they were sued in 2019 by a coalition of students, advocacy groups and a school district. The plaintiffs asserted that the SAT and ACT were biased against poor, mainly black and Hispanic students.

Some pundits insist that students who lack good grades in high school should first attend community college and then transfer to a “good” university. But shouldn’t arts students be able to attend a university where, from their first day, they can hone their artistic skills and – part of that process – meet a wide range of people instead of first having to study algebra in classrooms full of people exactly like them?

It is true that some specialised art and design private universities offer tuition-free places to “exceptional” high school artists based solely on their portfolios, ignoring low exam scores. However, there are far more diverse students who crave an art and design university education but who, due to life circumstances, cannot create a portfolio while they are still in high school.

Ultimately, if you can’t prove yourself as an artist before you go off to be educated as an artist, should you be denied entry? Doesn’t that contradict what education is all about? You may argue that entry standards are necessary to ensure there is a reasonable expectation that students’ investment in higher education will pay off, but who can even say these days what a basic level of artistic ability is? Many of the world’s greatest artist would fail this test. Besides, the art and design job market is extremely broad. While a student may never become a star, there are many entry- and mid-level jobs in which even people with a modicum of talent can succeed if they have received the proper education.

Nor does the "no barriers" educational philosophy apply only to art and design. After all, huge numbers of students enter college believing they are going to focus on one field, only to change their minds a semester or more in. It may be appropriate at that point to assess their suitability for their new major, and low-scoring students could be required to take foundational courses and be offered tutoring to bring their skills up to the levels required. If they cannot achieve competency within a fixed period of time, that would become an advising moment.

Ultimately, however, if we as a society do not offer those from challenged backgrounds the opportunity to catch up with everyone else, we will never have diversity in art, sciences or any field in between.

Elisa Stephens is president of Academy of Art University, an open-admissions art and design school in San Francisco.

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Reader's comments (1)

Without asking about the annual income of this author, may I politely ask what the author thinks of the Bennett study during the Reagan Administration that found that 83 percent of proprietary schools "consistently failed to enforce academic progress standards" and, that of the 1,165 for-profit schools studied, “766 of them has misrepresented themselves during the recruitment process; 533 overstated job placement rates; 366 misrepresented scholarships; and 399 misrepresented themselves in advertising.” ? And, given the let's just say "legally challenged" history of the school written about above, would it be too much to reveal that roughly 92% of all student loans come from the Government? And that the default rate is roughly 15% ? Yeah, sure open enrollment is really great for a sliver of people, especially the owners of proprietary and predatory schools. But does this author know how much of the money brought in to the federal coffers through loan interest is used to fund defaults? And who pays for that?