Las Vegas Sun

December 5, 2019

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Admissions standards debated

As university shifts its focus to research, it struggles with inclusiveness

Beyond the Sun

When UNLV opened on Maryland Parkway with a single building in 1957, few people could have imagined it would swell to become a campus of 28,000 students in just 50 years.

In its youth, the school plopped in the open desert was nicknamed “Tumbleweed Tech.” Later, it gained recognition as a basketball powerhouse.

Now, as UNLV embarks on its second half-century, its leaders want it to become a nationally important research institution.

That will require a major shift in how the community thinks about UNLV.

Southern Nevada’s only public university has long been about access. It’s a place that welcomes older and part-time students whom many elite colleges shun. Until a few years ago, anyone with a 2.5 high school grade-point average could enroll.

As administrators try to improve the university, they struggle with deciding which students to admit.

“As we move toward greater selectivity, a greater emphasis on full-time students, a greater emphasis on research, it starts to look, perhaps, more like a university that’s less welcoming to certain groups that we’ve historically served,” UNLV President David Ashley said.

Hoping to improve their school’s dismal six-year graduation rate, which hovers around 40 percent, officials have raised admissions standards, requiring students to earn a 3.0 GPA in a set of 13 high school classes to enter UNLV. The idea is that students with better academic preparation are more likely to complete degrees.

Nevadans looking for quick improvement shouldn’t get their hopes up. Budget cuts will make it difficult to maintain and improve access to classes and services such as advising that put students on track to graduate.

Even in better financial times, UNLV struggled to keep students in school. Its graduation rate has improved little since the 2000-01 school year, when it was 36 percent, according to the Institute for College Access and Success.

As Jim Rogers, chancellor of Nevada’s System of Higher Education, says, UNLV has “expanded in quantity but not in quality.”

Even under new admissions rules, legions of applicants who failed to earn a 3.0 in core high school classes have continued to be admitted by using alternative criteria, such as “other special circumstances.” The number admitted under those criteria can be as high as 15 percent of the number of freshmen accepted the previous year.

Rogers wants the number of exceptions to fall as the community becomes accustomed to new standards. “You can’t have a professor who walks into a class of 20 students and 10 of them can’t understand what they’re saying,” he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, however, has argued that UNLV’s admissions system puts too much emphasis on grades. The group was concerned when minority enrollment fell in fall 2006, the semester new requirements took effect.

Ashley wants UNLV to develop standards that give applicants credit for things such as leadership skills and overcoming hardship in addition to grades. The idea, he said, is to pick students whose talents and experiences will help them succeed.

The debate over whom UNLV should serve will continue for years to come.

As evidence of the matter’s complexity, Ashley’s views on the subject changed after he joined UNLV in 2006.

A former executive at the University of California at Merced, he said he came to Las Vegas thinking research institutions should focus on full-time students, not on the part-timers who have traditionally accounted for more than a quarter of UNLV’s undergraduates.

Hearing from successful Las Vegans who were once part-time students changed his perspective. Though he still hopes to increase the percentage of students attending full time, “we will continue welcoming part-time students,” he said.

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