13 Flexible Admission and Academic Performance

Stephen L. Grundy
Vice-President Academic and Provost, Professor
School of Environment and Sustainability
Royal Roads University

Abstract

The effect of flexible admission practices on academic performance are examined. A data set consisting of over 8,000 student records of which 27% consisted of non-traditional (flexible) admissions was examined. The results of this analysis showed that there was no significant effect on academic performance by the admission type, indicating that flexible admission students do equally well to those admitted on the basis of previous academic credentials. Further analysis also indicated little effect on academic performance either by gender or age. This study supports the notion of a more flexible approach to university admission, particularly in the applied and professional fields.

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Flexible Admission and Academic Performance

Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) refers to the practice of reviewing, evaluating, and acknowledging the skills and understanding that adults have gained through experiential learning (Thomas, 2000). Other terms that are widely used are Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) or Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition (PLAR), which typically refer to the practice of using RPL to grant academic credit through a course challenge or advanced standing. RPL also includes qualification recognition, which is the practice of using prior learning to recognize equivalency in qualification for the purpose of admission. It is the latter which we refer to as flexible admission i.e., admission granted to an individual who does not meet the standard academic admission requirements for entry but whose experience, after review, is deemed equivalent.

The post-secondary system shows increasing interest in the recognition of prior learning (RPL) (Harris, Wihak, & Van Kleef, 2014), due in part to student demand for recognition of their “out of school” experience, but also in part to the increasing academic recognition that the more mature student is a growing demographic and adds value to the classroom. In Canada, foreign credential recognition and RPL for skilled immigrants is a matter of some government priority as projected skill shortages loom (Guo & Shan, 2013). As RPL expands, there is also an emerging community of scholars studying RPL practice both globally (Wihak, Harris, & Breier, 2011) and in Canada (Conrad, 2008).

There are very few quantitative studies that demonstrate the academic effectiveness, or lack thereof, of flexible admission. A study of flexible admission to vocational teacher education in Sweden concluded that existing practices needed improvement to obtain validity and trust (Stenlund, 2013). Non-traditional students entering a Bachelor’s in Nursing program in a UK nursing school were found to perform equally to traditional entry (A levels) students in final degree classification attainment, although attrition was higher in flexible admission students (Brimble, 2013). The health care sector’s need for rural registered nurses in Australia prompted the development of alternative entrance requirements and the recognition of clinical experience to nursing programs. The recognition of prior learning did not affect the overall educational outcome (Rapley, Davidson, Nathan, & Dhaliwal, 2008). In contrast, students entering the University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia via flexible admissions were found to perform marginally worse than those meeting the standard academic requirements (Cantwell, Archer, & Bourke, 2001). In the previous study, it was found that older students who entered via flexible admission tended to outperform younger students; this effect was also duplicated by studies at York St John University in the UK, which also found that female students generally outperformed male students (Sheard, 2009).

The long-term experience of applying RPL processes to admission at Royal Roads University therefore lends itself to assessing correlations with admission type, grade point average, and gender. In this chapter, an analysis of these factors is presented.

Since its inception, flexible admission has been a key priority to allow increased accessibility for working professionals and was outlined in the founding education plan (Royal Roads University, 1995, p. 11). The flexible admission policy is designed to recognize evidence of prior learning accomplishments that will result in a high probability of successful program completion (“Flexible Admission,” n.d.) and is a key component of our learning and teaching model. Applicants are required to provide a C.V. and a personal statement, transcripts, two references at a minimum, and may be required to provide additional evidence that outlines prior learning accomplishments. The files are adjudicated by faculty and staff who have been specifically trained in flexible admission.

Anecdotal institutional evidence has suggested that flexible admission candidates do equally well as traditionally admitted students, but there is still a concern in the broader academic community that a more open flexible admission policy might contribute to an overall lowering of academic standards. There appears to be little available qualitative evidence to support this opinion and it may be more symptomatic of a natural resistance to change.

A dataset was exported from the student information system consisting of 11,401 records from students who graduated between 2001 and 2014. A GPA change occurred in 2005 (from a 4.00 scale to a 4.33 scale), and the data was transformed so that all GPA calculations were on a 4.33 scale. Eleven records that had a final GPA showing as zero were eliminated. Finally, data from the MA Leadership and Training program were eliminated from the dataset. This program’s competency-based grading system was not compatible with the 4.33 scale and caused significant distortion to the normality of the dataset (the program was replaced in 2005 by the MA Leadership using a more standard grading rubric). All statistical analysis was carried out using SPSS. For the purposes of this paper, the analysis was only carried out on degree programs and not certificates or diploma programs, resulting in 8382 records. The dataset used is summarized in Tables 1-3.

Table 1. Gender by Degree Level.
Table 1. Gender by Degree Level.

 

Table 2. Admission Type by Degree Level.
Table 2. Admission Type by Degree Level.

 

Table 3. Age by Degree Level.
Table 3. Age by Degree Level.

* One student excluded for missing date of birth

In Canada, women have made up the majority of full-time students in undergraduate programs since the 1990s. In 2008, 62% of all university graduates were women. While lower at the master’s level, female enrolment has also been steadily increasing, reaching 54% in 2008 (Turcotte, 2011). The latest enrolment data from Statistics Canada for 2013/14 show female enrolment as 57% at the undergraduate level and 54% at the graduate level. At Royal Roads University, 52% of the undergraduate students and 58% of the master’s students from 2001 to 2014 were female.

Table 2 shows that 22% of students at the bachelor’s level and 32% of students at the master’s level were admitted by flexible admission.

Master’s Degree Graduates

The basis of admission by program is shown in Table 4. Programs that are more managerial and leadership-oriented show a marked tendency for more flexible admission, whereas the more specialized or technical programs show a preference for requiring more traditional undergraduate experience.

Table 4. Flexible Admission by Program (Master’s degrees).
Program Standard Flexible
% %
MGM Master’s Global Leadership 33% 67%
MA International Hotel Management 33% 67%
MBA Digital Technologies 46% 54%
MA Knowledge Management 50% 50%
MBA Human Resources Management 51% 49%
MBA Executive Management 59% 41%
MA Leadership 59% 41%
MA Interdisciplinary Studies 59% 41%
MBA Project Management 60% 40%
MA Disaster and Emergency Management 65% 35%
MA Learning and Technology 66% 34%
MA Professional Communication 69% 31%
MA Conflict Analysis and Management 81% 19%
MA International and Intercultural Communication 82% 18%
MA Environmental Practice 83% 17%
MA Applied Communications 84% 16%
MA Human Security and Peacebuilding 86% 14%
MA Distributed Learning 86% 14%
MA Environment and Management 88% 12%
MA Educational Leadership and Management 89% 11%
MSc Environment and Management 91% 9%
MSc Environmental Practice 93% 7%
MA Environmental Education and Communication 95% 5%

In order to test whether gender or the basis of admission had any effect on graduating GPA, the means for each set were calculated (Table 5 and Table 6).

 

Table 5. Mean GPA by Gender for Master’s Degree Graduates.
Table 5. Mean GPA by Gender for Master’s Degree Graduates.

 

Table 6. Mean GPA by Type of Admission for Master’s Degree Graduates.
Table 6. Mean GPA by Type of Admission for Master’s Degree Graduates.

The results of an independent t-test showed that on average, standard admission applicants showed a very slightly higher graduating GPA (t = -8.833, p = .000) of 0.06927. While this is statistically significant, it is a small effect (r = 0.13) and probably not significant in practical terms. The results for GPA effect by gender were not significant (p ≥ 0.05).

Other studies have shown that older students perform better than younger students (Sheard, 2009) and in our data set, older students are more likely to have used that experience outside of school for flexible admission, potentially distorting the data to show that flexible admission students perform better. In this data set, the correlation between age and graduating GPA is significant (r = 0.031 p = .015) but again the effect is small, resulting in only around 1% of the variation in graduating GPA potentially explainable by age. If anything, this effect would slightly strengthen the performance of traditional admission students vs. flexible admission students.

A study of university grade inflation indicates that average GPAs have climbed by approximately 0.1 per decade (Rojstaczer & Christopher, 2010), but there is significant variation between programs and types of school. It is worth looking at this 13-year dataset from that perspective (Figure 1).

While no formal policies have been introduced to address perceptions of grade inflation during this time, it is clear from Figure 1 that grade deflation has occurred with a GPA reduction of approximately 0.2 in a decade.

Figure 1. GPA by Academic Year (Master’s Programs).

Bachelor’s Degree Graduates

As with master’s degrees, there is a large variation in the use of flexible assessment by program area (Table 7), but with no obvious reason other than the openness to this form of admission.

Table 7. Flexible Admission by Program (Bachelor’s Degrees).
Program Standard Flexible
% %
BA Justice Studies 70% 30%
BCom Entrepreneurial Management 73% 27%
BA Professional Communication 74% 26%
BA Applied Communication 75% 25%
BA International Hotel Management 93% 7%
BSc Environmental Management 97% 3%
BSc Environmental Science 98% 2%
BA Environmental Practice 100% 0%

The results of the analyses of gender or admission type on graduating GPA were reversed from that of the master’s programs. On average, female students outperformed male students by a very small margin (difference in the means = 0.07681, t = 6.213, p = .000). The basis of admission (flexible or standard) had no effect on graduating GPA (p = .900).

The correlation between age and graduating GPA is significant (r = 0.124 p = .000), but again the effect is small, resulting in only around 1.5% of the variation in graduating GPA which is potentially explainable by age. Again, this effect could slightly strengthen the performance of standard admission students vs. flexible admission students.

Unlike the GPAs of master’s graduates, the GPAs of bachelor’s graduates have not changed over time (Figure 2). This again is in contrast to overall trends of grade deflation at American 4-year colleges and universities (Rojstaczer & Christopher, 2010).

Figure 2. GPA by Academic Year (Bachelor’s Programs).

Conclusion

This preliminary analysis of a dataset containing 3648 bachelor’s degree graduates and 4734 master’s degree students over a 13-year period shows that graduating GPA level appears only minimally correlated to gender or type of admission. The effect sizes suggest that other variables (e.g., pedagogical effectiveness, other learner characteristics, etc.) may be able to better explain GPA variations. This result (a) provides support for continuing to recognize prior learning as the basis for admission for experienced applicants who may lack sufficient educational qualifications, and (b) questions the degree to which undergraduate credentials are a strong predictor of outcomes at the graduate level. Given the growing interest in prior learning assessment and rise of competency-based programs, more research into the outcomes, implications, and results of flexible admission practices is necessary.

Acknowledgements

The author wishes to thank Sherman Waddell for his initial work on an earlier data set and Gay Perry in the Office of the Registrar at Royal Roads University for exporting the data from the student information system and assisting with the data definitions.

References

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