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Spurred By Pandemic, UNC System Reduces Role of ACT In Admissions

Nchole Yeo


Vanessa Barnes has helped students navigate college admissions as a high school guidance counselor for 20 years. She knows all the ins and outs of applications, but her goal is simple.

“My passion is I want kids to be able to go to school,” Barnes said.

Barnes is a member of the North Carolina School Counselor Association, and has worked in both urban and rural schools. She says especially for less advantaged students, college can make all the difference.

“In some of the districts where I've worked, it has been a game changer for those kids to leave that rural agrarian economy to be able to come back and revolutionize how their parents do their farm business,” Barnes said.

But more often it’s the less advantaged students who struggle to be admitted, especially when it comes to the UNC System's minimum admissions requirement.

UNC System implemented the standard in 2008, requiring students to have both a 2.5 weighted grade point average and meet a specific benchmark on standardized tests to be admitted to a 4-year public university.    

Each year that rule bars UNC System member colleges from considering about 19,700 North Carolina high school graduates who met either the minimum standard for grades or standardized tests, but not both.

Elizabeth City State University Chancellor Karrie Dixon says that can leave some deserving students behind. She recalls the case of a student from Northampton County.

"This student had a 4.0 GPA, was valedictorian of her high school, and took the SAT three times," Dixon said. "But still she could not get to that minimum score that we were requiring, so we had to deny that student."

This week, the UNC System Board of Governors voted to temporarily make that admissions standard more flexible, in part due to the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on testing.

This graphic illustrates the number of students who met UNC's minimum standards for GPA and standardized test scores in a given year. The green dots represent students who meet the test score requirement but not the minimum GPA. The red dots represent stu
Credit UNC System
This graphic illustrates the number of students who met UNC's minimum standards for GPA and standardized test scores in a given year. The green dots represent students who meet the test score requirement but not the minimum GPA. The red dots represent students who meet the GPA requirement, but not the minimum test score. The green and red dots would now be eligible to be considered for acceptance at UNC System schools.



Testing Cancellations Put New Pressure On Policy Change

Under a new policy the UNC System put in place this week, to apply to any of its colleges in the next three years, high school students will need either: 

  • a 2.5 weighted grade point average OR 

  • a minimum combined score of 19 on the ACT or 1010 on the SAT 

The Board has been studying a change to the admissions requirement for years, but the vote Monday was spurred by the fact that - due to the coronavirus pandemic - many students won't have an ACT score to submit this spring.
"Both the SAT and ACT have been canceled or postponed," said Board of Governors member Anna Spangler Nelson. "And there are currently over 6,000 students whose admission to the system is in jeopardy due to these cancellations."

The postponed testing means high school seniors who hoped to retake a standardized test to improve their score won't have the option. High school juniors planning to submit their spring scores for early admission to competitive UNC schools would also be affected.

Given that burden, the Board will allow students starting college in Fall 2020, 2021 or 2022 to be considered for admission to UNC institutions if they meet either the prior minimum bar for grades or the new higher bar for test scores.

Will The Admissions Rule Become Permanent?

The Board of Governors had a lively debate about whether to make the change permanent, and ultimately tabled that decision, in favor of trying the more flexible standard for three years. 

ECSU Chancellor Dixon urged the board to make the change, now and in the future. She said the flexible policy will be especially relevant at her university, where students in surrounding counties on average score a 15 on the ACT. 

Three Board of Governors members voted against the change even on a temporary basis. Board of Governors member Steve Long has been the leading critic of the new admissions policy.

“It's not fair to the taxpayers, it’s not fair to the student or to the family involved, to allow someone who's not academically prepared for a four year program to go through a UNC school,” Long said.

He argues the change could tempt universities to admit students who might be more likely to drop out, hurting UNC System graduation rates and leaving those students burdened with debt.

“I think we get caught up in the statistics,” Long said. “I'm really thinking about the people who will go into the university, and they're not really ready.”

A pilot study conducted at three UNC System colleges found that students admitted under a more flexible standard generally kept on track with their peers academically.

The four-year graduation rate for students admitted in 2015 under the pilot study at Elizabeth City State University and Fayetteville State University was slightly lower than their peers, but the overall difference in graduation rates was not statistically significant. But, Long says that study used a sliding scale.

“Where if you have less than a 2.5 GPA, we will take you if your standardized test scores higher,” Long explained. “To me, I think the sliding scale is the best option.”

The new lower standard does not mean students will be automatically admitted. Individual universities will have the final say on who gets in.

School guidance counselor Vanessa Barnes says the important thing is more students will have a chance.

“No matter how old we get, we can think about somebody giving us a chance,” Barnes said.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
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