Author: Watson, Larry D
Date published: January 1, 2010
PROMOTING STUDENT BODY DIVERSITY IS a goal of most MSW programs. Admission policies based on the desire for high academic standards sometimes results in unnecessary barriers to students who, if admitted to an MSW program, would graduate and become contributing members to the profession. Admissions policies purportedly based on high standards are often based on majority values that do not reflect an ethnic minority experience. This article reports the experience of a social work program in developing an enhancement program as a strategy to diversify the student body and at the same time to provide the supports necessary for student success. This study examines a cohort of 57 students admitted on probationary status to an MSW program in 2002 on the condition that they participate in the enhancement program.
Enhancement Program Description
In the fall semester of 1993, a large social work program in a metropolitan area in the southwestern United States implemented an initiative to admit a limited number of students who did not meet the standard admission criteria for the MSW degree. The admission criteria then and at the time of the current study included (a) a bachelor's degree with a liberal arts perspective, (b) an undergraduate GPA equal to or greater than 3.0 in the last 60 hours, (c) three letters of reference, and (d) a personal statement. The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is required for candidates with less than a 3.0 GPA in the last 60 hours of their undergraduate program. The stated purpose of the probationary admission /enhancement initiative is to recruit and retain qualified ethnic minority students. Students are admitted on probationary status and required to attend a weekly 2-hour enhancement seminar during the fall semester. Only a limited number of students were to be admitted under this provision, and the program is not limited only to ethnic minority students. Probationary admissions are generally limited to 25 students per academic year.
Although topics presented in the enhancement seminar changed somewhat from year to year, the core topics included (a) graduate school expectations, (b) the advising system and how to use it, (c) successful public speaking, (d) how to use the library, (e) what professors expect in a master's-level paper, (f) guidelines of writing according to American Psychological Association style, (g) stress and coping, and (h) student organizations. The seminar meets for 2 hours one time per week for the first 10 weeks of the fall semester. The sessions are conducted by faculty, admissions staff, university student support staff, 2ndyear students, and university administrators. Participation in the enhancement program is required as a condition of admission and continuation in the program.
In the fall semester 2002 an exception was made to the provision that the probation class be limited to 25. In that year a total of 224 students were admitted to the master's program, and 57 of those were admitted on probation and required to attend the enhancement seminar. This larger group of probationary students admitted in 2002 provides a larger study population and therefore an excellent opportunity to examine the probationary admission program and the enhancement seminar.
Admission decisions made by social work programs are critical, not only to the individual seeking admission and to the program administrators making the decisions but also to the profession of social work. Although many studies examine admission criteria, few findings indicate that the standard criteria are in anyway predictive of either academic performance or suitability to the profession of social work (Born & Carroll, 1988; W. R. Dunlap, 1979; K. M. Dunlap, Henley, & Fraser, 1998; Glen Maye & Oakes, 2002; Pelech, Stalker, Regehr, & Jacobs, 1999).
Administrators of social work programs are not alone in seeking new forms of the admission policy. A study of MBA programs found that Graduate Management Admission Test scores and previous GPAs may not adequately predict success and may unfairly block admission of students who are qualified and would presumably do well in the MBA program (Ahmadi & Raiszadeh, 1997). Nelson and Nelson (1995) examined GRE scores as predictors of success (degree completion) for regular admissions versus probationary admissions across several academic disciplines and found that verbal GRE scores best predicted success for regular admits whereas qualitative and analytical scores best predicted academic success for probationary students. Stack and Kelley (2002) examined the GRE as a predictor of graduate student performance in criminal justice and found GRE scores to be largely unrelated to indicators of graduate student performance. Stack and Kelly note that their study, like most others, leaves most of the variance in student performance unexplained.
The sample for this study was 224 students admitted to the MSW program in the fall of 2002, comprising two subgroups: 167 students admitted unconditionally and 57 students admitted on a probationary status. Although males were underrepresented, comparing the demographics of males and females, the proportion of males represented in the probationary group (14.1%) was statistically similar to the proportion of males in the unconditionally admitted group (10.2%, χ^sup 2^ =.745, p=.338).
The probationary status group was statistically significant in that it was more diverse than the unconditionally admitted group. Caucasians represented 65.2% of the population of the unconditionally admitted group and 50.9% of the probationary status group. Twenty-two percent (22.2%) of the unconditionally admitted group were Black, whereas Blacks represented 29.8% of the probationary status group. Hispanics represented 7.8% of unconditionally admitted students and 15.8% of the probationary status group. These data indicate that the probationary /enhancement seminar program is successful in meeting the stated goal of increasing ethnic diversity in the student population (χ^sup 2^=13.605, p=.003). (see Table 1).
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At the time the data were gathered for this study, spring semester 2006, 67.1% of the students admitted unconditionally in 2002 had graduated, whereas 68.5% of the students admitted on probation had graduated. Of the unconditionally admitted students, 6.6% were still enrolled at the time of the study, whereas 5.2% of the probation students were still enrolled. Of the unconditionally admitted students, 26.4% were no longer in the program, and 26.3% of the probation groups were no longer enrolled. Of the 57 students admitted on probation in fall 2002, 39 graduated, 3 were still enrolled, and 15 were no longer in the program at the time of the study. There is no significant difference between the unconditionally admitted and the probationary admitted groups in the number of students graduated, still enrolled, and not enrolled (χ^sup 2^=.276, p=. 871). There were no significant associations between the unconditionally admitted and the probationary admitted groups with other demographics (see Table 2).
The dependent variable and the independent variables used in this study were gathered by examining the admissions information collected on all candidates applying for admission to the MSW program and by examining the students' academic records in the Computer Information Control System. The independent variables for this study were gender, ethnicity, undergraduate GPA, advanced-standing status, GRE score, and admission status. The dependent variables for this study were "current or final GPA" and graduation status. The current GPA is defined as the student's GPA at the time of graduation, or if the student has not graduated, it is his or her GPA at the time the data were gathered. In order for the current GPA to be an appropriate dependent variable, it was necessary to include only those students who had graduated or those still enrolled in the program (see Table 3).
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The statistical tests used in this study were independent samples i-tests, chi-square, multiple linear regression, and multiple logistic regression. Less than 1% of the sample had missing data for any of the variables, except admission GRE (65% missing). Thus the admission GRE was not included as a predictor in the analyses. Fourteen students were no longer in the program at the time of the study, and one individual had missing data for the undergraduate GPA and was removed from analysis. Thus the final sample was 209.
The following questions were addressed by this study:
Question 1: Is there a difference in last or final GPA scores between students admitted on probation and students admitted unconditionally?
Finding: An analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) controlling for incoming GPA showed that students admitted on probation status, M=3.48, SD=.37, had final GPA scores similar to those of the unconditionally admitted students, M=3.60, SD=.40, F(I, 206)=.041, p=. 839. Students admitted on probation and attending the enhancement seminar had final GPA scores similar to the final GPA scores of students admitted unconditionally. Students admitted on probation performed at the same level as students admitted unconditionally. A 3.0 GPA is required for graduation; therefore it is interesting to examine the relative GPA score increases from undergraduate GPA to graduate GPA as is examined in question 2.
Question 2: Is there a difference in the gain in GPA scores from undergraduate to final GPA for students admitted unconditionally and students admitted on probation?
Finding: To compare the gains in GPAs from admission to GPA at graduation for the two groups, a gains score was calculated by subtracting the GPA at graduation from students' incoming GPA. A positive score indicates that there was an increase in students' GPA from admission to graduation, whereas a negative score indicated there was a decrease in students' GPA. An independent samples ttest showed that the two groups significantly differed in their average change of GPA, f(l, 206)=.-7.776, p<.001. Students admitted on probation had a mean gain in GPA of .74, whereas students who were admitted unconditionally had a mean gain in GPA of .18.
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Question 3: For students who have graduated or are still enrolled, is there a significant relationship between final or current GPA based on gender, advanced-standing status, undergraduate GPA, ethnicity, or admissions status (probation or unconditional)?
Finding: A multiple regression analysis was conducted to determine directional relationships between final or current GPAs from the predictors of advanced-standing status, gender (female compared to male), undergraduate GPA, ethnicity (Black or Hispanic compared to Caucasian), or admission status (probation compared to unconditional). The overall model was significant, F(6, 192)=8.422, pc.001, and accounted for 20.8% of the variance (R^sup 2^=.208). When controlling for all other predictors, the undergraduate GPA significantly predicted students' final GPA, β=.226, p=.017, indicating students' with a higher incoming GPA had significantly higher final GPAs. When controlling for all other predictors, students' advanced standing significantly predicted their final GPA, β=-.305, pc.001, indicating students with advanced standing had a significantly lower final GPA compared to those with regular standing. At the time of the study, students could be admitted on probation and granted advanced standing. That policy has since changed, with advanced standing being granted only to students admitted unconditionally. When controlling for all other predictors, being Black significantly predicted final GPAs, β=-.185, p=.007, indicating that being a Black student predicted a significantly lower final GPA compared to being a Caucasian student. Finally, when controlling for all other predictors, being Hispanic significantly predicted a student's final GPA (0=-129, p=.055), indicating that being a Hispanic student predicted a significantly lower final GPA compared to being a Caucasian non-Hispanic student. There was no significant relationships between gender (being female compared to male) and final GPA and between admission status (probationary compared to unconditional) and final GPA (see Table 4).
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Question 4: For students who have graduated or are still enrolled, is there a significant relationship between GPA gains scores based on gender, advanced-standing status, undergraduate GPA, ethnicity, or admission status (probationary or unconditional)?
Finding: A multiple regression analysis was conducted to determine directional relationships between GPA gains scores from the predictors of advanced standing status, gender (female compared to male), ethnicity (Black or Hispanic compared to Caucasian), or admission status (probation compared to unconditional). The overall model was significant, F(5, 202)=17.93, p<.001, and accounted for 30.7% of the variance (R^sup 2^=.307). When controlling for all other predictors, students' advanced standing significantly predicted their GPA gains score, β=-. 273, p<.001, indicating students with advanced standing had a significantly lower GPA gains score compared to those with regular standing. When controlling for all other predictors, admission status significantly predicted the GPA gains score, β=.481, p<.001, indicating that being a probationary student predicted a significantly greater GPA gains score compared to being an unconditionally admitted student. There were no significant relationships between gender (being female compared to male), ethnicity (Black or Hispanic compared to Caucasian), and the GPA gains score (see Table 5).
Question 5: Is there a significant relationship between graduation status and admissions status (probationary vs. unconditional)?
Finding: A logistic regression analysis was conducted to determine directional relationships between graduation status and admissions status (probationary compared to unconditional) when controlling for incoming GPAs. The overall model was nonsignificant, indicating that a student who was admitted on probationary status was just as likely to graduate as a student who was admitted unconditionally. Furthermore, a student who was admitted on probationary status was just as likely not to graduate as a student who was admitted unconditionally (see Table 6).
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The findings of the study indicate that the group of students admitted on probation are a more ethnically diverse group than those admitted unconditionally and, therefore, demonstrates that the probation /enhancement initiative continues to meet one of the major goals of the program. The enhancement seminar provides the vehicle for this more diverse group to enter the profession of social work. It must be acknowledged that the students admitted on probationary status might have done as well academically without the enhancement program. The importance is that the program was designed as the mechanism to admit students who did not meet admission criteria and to give students an opportunity for a graduate social work education.
From this study, we know there is not a significant difference in GPA scores between students admitted unconditionally and those admitted on probation. At graduation, students admitted unconditionally have a mean GPA score of 3.66, whereas those admitted on probation have a mean GPA of 3.47. It is interesting to note that the final mean score for students admitted on probation was .74 higher than their mean undergraduate GPA, whereas those admitted unconditionally improved by .18 from the undergraduate to the final graduate GPA. Students admitted on probation improved their GPAs significantly more than students admitted unconditionally. Overall they exhibited the ability to meet graduate school academic expectations. The larger gain in GPA scores for students in the enhancement seminar indicates that many students can perform better in graduate school than their undergraduate record indicates. Students admitted on probation graduated at the same rate as those students admitted unconditionally. When controlling for undergraduate GPAs in logistic regression, there is no difference in graduating versus not graduating based on admission status (unconditional or probationary).
Limitations of the Study
The major limitation of this study is the selection of the final GPA as the variable to which all others were compared. The phenomenon of grade inflation is well-known in higher education. An examination of the GPAs of the subjects of this study reveals a grade distribution that is highly skewed. A second major limitation of this study is that there was no adequate evaluation of the enhancement seminar. The research design of this study prevented any claim of causality in relation to the effectiveness of the enhancement seminar, but neither was there a method to test the possibility that the seminar acted as an important intervening variable. The findings of this study cannot be generalized to other social work programs. The MSW program in this study has admission criteria very similar to many social work graduate programs but also may be very different from other programs in terms of demographics and program size.
This study found that the probationary admissions policy and required enhancement seminar of the social work program were effective in increasing the diversity of the student body. None of the students on probation met the required admissions standards but, in fact, were very successful in the program once admitted. From the probationary cohort of this study, 39 received their MSW degree and 3 were still active in the program. The probationary admission policy and required enhancement seminar gave 57 students the opportunity for graduate study, and potentially 42 will receive their MSW and become professional social workers. Social work programs should look for creative approaches to offer promising students the opportunity for graduate study. The social work program in this study chose to admit students on probation and to provide the support of the enhancement program. Regardless of the efficacy of the enhancement initiative, having it in place provided the vehicle for numerous students who would otherwise not have had the opportunity to become social workers. The enhancement program is recommended as one mechanism successfully used to provide a graduate social work education opportunity to students who otherwise would have been rejected using only traditional criteria.
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Born, C. E., & Carroll, D. J. (1988). Ethics in admissions. Journal of Social Work Education, 24, 79-85.
Dunlap, K. M., Henley, H. C, Jr., & Fraser, M. W. (1998). The relationship between admissions criteria and academic performance in an MSW program. Journal of Social Work Education, 34, 455-462.
Dunlap, W. R. (1979). How effective are graduate social work admission criteria? Journal of Education for Social Work, 15, 96-102.
GlenMaye, L., & Oakes, M. (2002). Assessing suitability of MSW applicants through objective scoring of personal statements. Journal of Social Work Education, 38, 67-82.
Nelson, J., & Nelson, C. (1995). Predictors of success for students entering graduate school on a probationary basis. (ERIC document Reproduction Service No. ED388206.) Muncie, IN: Ball State University.
Pelech, W., Stalker, C. A., Regehr, C, & Jacobs, M. (1999). Making the grade: The quest for validity in admissions decisions. Journal of Social Work Education, 35, 215-226.
Stack, S., & Kelly, T. (2002). The graduate record examination as a predictor of graduate student performance: The case of criminal justice. Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 13, 336-349.
Larry D. Watson
University of Texas at Arlington
Joan R. Rycraft
University of Texas at Arlington
Larry D. Watson is assistant professor and Joan R. Rycraft is associate professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Address correspondence to Larry D. Watson, University of Texas at Arlington, Social Work, 211 South Cooper, P.O. Box 19129, Arlington, TX 76019; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.