As tens of thousands of students descend on college campuses in the coming days, know this about the Midwest: It’s getting harder to get into the region’s top public schools, including the University of Michigan.
Since 2001, Michigan, Ohio State, Minnesota, Indiana and Purdue have seen substantial gains in ACT test scores for incoming freshmen. This has pushed the Big Ten’s average scores on the so-called “middle 50” – representing the middle 50 percent of incoming freshmen – up 2 points or more over this period.
ACT scores for Big Ten freshmen in the 25th percentile of their class rose from 22.6 points on average in 2001 to 25.1 points last year, a 2.5 point increase. Those in the 75th percentile rose from 27.9 to 29.8 (A max ACT score is 36).
But as the conference attracts higher-achieving students, one member, Michigan State, has basically treaded water since 2001. Incoming MSU students raised their ACT scores by roughly one point over this period, even as other schools – both from the top and bottom of the Big Ten – raised their game considerably, a Bridge analysis shows.
Michigan State now ranks second from the bottom among the 12 Big Ten universities that report ACT scores, ahead of only Nebraska. (Rutgers and Maryland joined the conference this year but are not included in this analysis because nearly all their students took the SAT).
Back in 2001, MSU was ahead of Nebraska and essentially tied with Indiana, Purdue and Minnesota, and just behind Ohio State and Illinois. Except for Nebraska, these other schools had surpassed Michigan State on either the 25th and 75th percentiles or both by 2013.
MSU does, however, have far more company when compared with Michigan’s 14 other public universities. With the exception of UM, the Bridge analysis finds that nearly all in-state schools stayed relatively stagnant since 2001, as measured by the ACT. MSU ranks third in the state in academic strength of its incoming students, behind UM and Michigan Tech.
Increased selectivity by Big Ten universities has made it tougher to get into schools like the University of Michigan, where a 28 on the high school ACT test would place a student in just the 25th percentile of UM freshmen. That’s up from a 25 in 2001. An ACT composite score of 32 would have put a UM freshman in the 75th percentile of the 2013 incoming class, up from 30 in 2001.
In contrast, at Michigan State, the middle 50 moved just one point at each end, from 22-27 in 2001 to 23-28 last year.
Of course, ACT scores are just one measure of student achievement – schools also look at such factors as class rank, grade-point average, and the rigor of classes taken – but it’s an important one. When average scores jump from 25 to 28, it’s significant, said said Ed Colby, director of public relations for the ACT. A 25 places a student ahead of 79 percent of test takers nationwide. A 28 ups that to 91 percent.
“It’s a huge difference,” he said.
Despite growing differences between Michigan State and its Big Ten peers, MSU’s Jim Cotter, director of admissions, said he and school President Lou Anna K. Simon are comfortable with its scores. A test score, he said, does not a student make, and average test scores do not an institution make.
“It’s a balancing act at a place like Michigan State, which has long been about the principles of opportunity,” he said. “Admissions is not about a test score, it’s about a whole person.”
To be sure, MSU, which enrolls more Michigan students than any other state university, is thriving by several other academic measures. It is, for instance, ranked among the nation’s top 75 colleges by U.S. News and World Report, and is 83rd in the 2013-2014 World University Rankings. Michigan State is also choosing students well. It has a high freshmen retention rate and second highest graduation rate in the state behind UM. Its grad rate is well above the next closest in-state public school, Grand Valley State.
The trend toward higher selectivity among other Big Ten schools raises questions of access. Are the top public schools, which get taxpayers dollars, open to everyone? Or do the benefits of an elite school – prestige, economic gains from research and development – outweigh questions of opportunity for many students in those states?
“That’s where the real rub is,” said David Hawkins, director of public policy and research for the National Association of College Admissions Counseling.
With test scores tracking income and poverty rates, some also question the impact that high selectivity has on poor and minority populations. In Michigan, the average ACT score among African-American students was 16 in 2013, compared with 20.9 for whites and 23.1 for Asians.
African Americans comprised 4 percent of enrollment at UM in 2013, even though they comprise 14 percent of the state’s population. At Michigan State, blacks comprise 7 percent of the campus population.
A pro-affirmative action group, By Any Means Necessary, has railed against the University of Michigan and its low minority enrollment and called upon the school to bring black admissions to 10 percent. The school has seen black enrollment fall since the passage of a 2006 state ballot issue that forbids universities from giving preferential treatment based on race in admission decisions.
To move into a more selective admissions posture, Michigan State argues, could end up closing doors it wants to keep open. “I think it would limit access,” Cotter said.
A college arms race
In a competitive world where college rankings are inevitably tied to prestige, test scores can become academic fodder for institutions known more for football teams that do battle on Saturdays. Incoming student test scores have become an integral part of national rankings, though factors such as grad rates, class size and faculty resources also play a role.
It’s not uncommon for a school to plaster its campus with declarations of its “Best Colleges” rankings. (For the record: Northwestern, the Big Ten’s only private school, was tied (with Johns Hopkins) at No. 12 in the most recent rankings; UM was tied (with Tufts University) at No. 28; MSU was tied with Iowa at 73.)
Admissions counselors may “decry the rankings,” said Hawkins of the NACAC, “but you can’t help but walk around campus and see the banners…Colleges aren’t shy (about boasting).”
Hawkins said researchers have watched not only test scores climb in the past decade, but the number of students and high-achieving students as well. Grades are rising, along with the academic rigor of the high school courses students are being asked to take. Translation: There are more students and more top students with better grades and test scores.
Add to that the more than 500 universities and colleges that now allow students to use the online Common Application, and students are applying to more schools than ever. (Indeed, Michigan has seen applications jump 76 percent between 2001 and 2012, much of the rise attributed to the 2010 decision to accept the common app. Michigan State, which does not accept the common app, saw applications rise just 26 percent.)
That means selective schools could be yet more selective. “They may be able to choose from a more bountiful group of students and a more qualified group of students,” Hawkins said.
UM an outlier in Michigan
Admissions counselors at the University of Michigan have seen the improvement, not just on test scores, but in student grades, the quality of high school transcripts and in leadership and other measures.
"The overall caliber of the University of Michigan's entering class rises each year,” Erica Sanders, managing director of undergraduate admissions, wrote in response to questions from Bridge. The university did not make Sanders available for an interview, citing a busy academic calendar. “Any increase in test scores reflects the achievements of those who choose to apply to Michigan."
UM’s gains have not spread across Michigan, where scores at the 13 smaller, non-Big Ten universities didn’t change much. Wayne State, Ferris State and Oakland University saw the biggest increases since 2001. Western Michigan, UM-Flint and Central Michigan actually saw scores decline slightly.
The state’s less selective schools had similar “middle 50” scores, with Saginaw Valley, Wayne State, Eastern Michigan, Ferris State, Northern Michigan, UM-Flint, Western Michigan, Lake Superior State, Oakland University and Central Michigan having a 25th percentile score of between 18 and 20 and a 75th percentile score of between 24 and 26.
For Michael Boulus, executive director of the Presidents Council State Universities of Michigan, which advocates for all 15 public universities, the difference in ACT scores reflect a “robust system” that provides entry points for students of all abilities.
On one hand you have Michigan, Michigan Tech and Michigan State, where admission can be difficult, he said. And yet the state has 12 other schools that provide access for a broader range of students. “There’s opportunity for everyone,” he said.