UM soars, MSU doesn't on freshmen test scores

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.

Tougher competition

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.

Too selective?

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.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Cindy Merkel
Tue, 08/26/2014 - 10:11am
While this article is a good read filled with solid facts, I can't help but think it has it backwards. The emphasis should be on comparing UM-AA's outcomes to MSU's. There is far less challenge in maintaining high retention and graduation rates when an institution sets their admissions selectivity towards the higher achieving student as UM-AA does and yet, MSU with its just a touch above the average Joe and Jane admission strategy has higher retention and graduation rates. Not only that but, as noted in the article, MSU enrolls more Michigan resident students than UM-AA.. Thank you MSU, for your commitment to Jane and Joe and all the tax payers of our great state.
Tue, 08/26/2014 - 1:36pm
MSU has the "second highest graduation rate in the state behind UM."
MSU Alumnus
Tue, 08/26/2014 - 10:22am
Michigan State is a university that gives people and opportunity unlike very selective schools like University of Michigan. I did not have the best scores when I entered in 2008 and what I lacked in scores I made up for with tenacity, passion, and hard work. I am now living and working in Chicago. This would have never happened if I had not gotten accepted into Michigan State. Although, I didn't apply to UofM, I got accepted into every other in-state school. Ultimately, Michigan State changed my life and has positioned me for success. I am more than a test score!!!
Mike Wilkinson
Tue, 08/26/2014 - 10:25am
Absolutely agree and I believe Mr. Cotter at MSU was making that point.
Charles Richards
Tue, 08/26/2014 - 2:58pm
I fail to see that "selective schools" do not give an opportunity to students. But MSU Alumnus is absolutely right when he says that "tenacity, passion, and hard work" count for a great deal and often compensate for less than stellar academic ability. And he is right about being more than a "test score", but a test score is inevitably one of his characteristics.
Jeff Erickson
Sun, 11/23/2014 - 8:04am
So what you are saying, then, is that Western Michigan is a superior school to Michigan State because it gives more students an opportunity for a college education. Or to take that logic to an extreme, a community college is superior to Stanford or Harvard.
Tue, 08/26/2014 - 11:08am
I'm still amused that the Bridge thinks these test scores are the end-all to tell how well students will succeed. I only had a 22 on my ACT but eventually did the Oakland Community College , U of M-Flint to U of M Ann Arbor track and then earned my graduate degree from Michigan. I eventually became very successful in my field that I studied in and earned a 3.8 GPA. But according to these folks, and their obsession with standardized tests, people like me never should have earned that chance because that test score "labeled" me. Maybe it's because my parents didn't have the money to send me to better k-12 schools or pay for Kaplan training and it prevented me from obtaining my true potential for those stupid tests (that proved nothing with me). Michigan is exclusive with incoming freshman because they want those out-of-state kids (oh, and internationals) for that extra tuition. Kudos to MSU for trying to make the regular Joe's and Jane's dream a reality. BTW, the dirty little secret is it's easier to transfer into the big schools because they will take your money anyway. At least that helps you avoid the large 500+ introduction classes taught by TA's which causes a lot of students to take remedial classes because they are not being taught by legitimate professors. Maybe the Bridge can do a story on that rather than this obsession with tests and accountability that they have been laser-focused on since bursting onto the scene?
Mike Wilkinson
Tue, 08/26/2014 - 11:12am
jamslam: The story does not say this is the only way to succeed, and as graduate who took the community-college-to-UM-with-a-dollop-of-Oakland University-thrown-in path, I'm well aware there are many paths. I think MSU pointed out the need to keep its doors open wide. It's more diverse than UM (as is Ohio State) and its students have and continue to succeed.
Tue, 08/26/2014 - 11:46am
Mike, I totally got the "jist" of the article. But your primary focus was on test scores and that is an issue many of us have with the Bridge is too many articles about test scores (and accountability)- the new fad in education reform. As parents, we are getting tired of our kids being used as testing experiments, and quite frankly from my own experience, the SAT and ACT are just rackets for the schools. I am convinced more than ever that those tests do not encompass the whole picture of a student's education. The elite universities are just making it ridiculous for the average student to enter (especially Michigan) and it's spreading to other schools in an attempt to get out-of-state tuition (a pure money grab). I'm glad you did at least shed light on MSU (even though it pains me as a Michigan graduate) because they are still within reach for more students. But that only took up the later-half of your article. That's my issue with it. And speaking about making it more difficult, how about that Pre-Calc requirement for many fields that don't need that much math but the universities are using it as a money grab to get people to keep taking it (along with remedial classes)? Got to love those pre-reqs!
Ed Grad Student
Thu, 08/28/2014 - 12:04am
Excellent points - there is a growing body of research that questions the predictive validity of the SAT and ACT (which by the way are designed only to be valid predictors of the likelihood of successful completion of the first year of college). I recommend a book called "Beyond the Big Test" by William Sedlecek of UMD, he has developed a more complete measure of student potential using what he terms non-cognitive variables. It's an informative and transformative read. Some schools are moving to test optional admissions and I think this is a welcome development.
Sun, 08/31/2014 - 3:04pm
School has always been a competition since 1778 that begins in pk. Test scores rank students in the competition. Post secondary training, careers are determined by these scores. We may hate ir but the test scores measure tenacity more than anything, Will you practice and observe to determine how to master exam. If studenr is not tenacious then they should consider other options. Register for
Don Heller
Tue, 08/26/2014 - 11:12am
Jim Cotter is right, that MSU has worked hard to maintain broad access to Michigan residents, as compared to MSU which has become more selective (while enrolling a smaller proportion of Michigan residents). This is one reason why MSU was ranked in #25 nationally in Washington Monthly's "Best Bang for the Buck" college rankings, while UM doesn't appear at all (
Tue, 08/26/2014 - 3:50pm
That list seems to use percent of applicants admitted as part of their criteria, which would obviously benefit MSU over U-M. Though it also includes graduate rate, percent receiving Pell grants, and default rates. I'm guessing U-M has less students on Pell grants as well. Here's a different ranking from Kiplinger's where U-M is ranked as the 6th best in-state value in public education (#16 out-of-state). MSU is #41 in-state and #57 out-of-state.
Tue, 08/26/2014 - 11:41am
Regarding student outcomes and graduation rates: UM-AA 4 year graduation rate is 76%: 6 year graduation rate is 91%. The highest in the state for public or private colleges. MSU was reported at 53% for 4 years and 79% for 6 years. See Bridge July 17, 2014 for complete listing of graduation rates.
Mike Wilkinson
Tue, 08/26/2014 - 11:45am
Yes, there are many measures. I added a link to that story for those who want to see.
Tue, 08/26/2014 - 12:33pm
Graduation rates are generally a reflection of the characteristics of incoming students more than anything else. See my earlier post where I linked the Washington Monthly rankings, which show that MSU exceeds its predicted graduation rate (based on the characteristics of its incoming students) more than does UM.
Tue, 08/26/2014 - 12:24pm
My son graduated in May from MSU and my daughter will graduate this May from UM-AA, test scores are one part of the whole picture, and my son received a top notch education. He took the five year plan because he changed his major and added a second major and is now over in India working for a great company that will give him some great experience. The company has given him some really cool experience (4 months post college and he is already heading up his own project team) because he is an MSU - supply chain management grad!! It all depends on what you want out of college and what you decide to do with your education. Nothing wrong with going to community college first, after all it is what the diploma says, not where you started.
Charles Richards
Tue, 08/26/2014 - 3:59pm
Mr. Wilkinson says, "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?" Of course, the "top public schools" are open to everyone. As eager as they are to be "diverse," they will snap up anyone, regardless of race, religion, or sexual preferences, if they meet their criteria for admission. Or is Mr. Wilkinson suggesting they reduce their standards so that "all may have prizes? Is Mr. Wilkinson reluctant to acknowledge that not all are equally gifted? What is the problem with allowing those who do not qualify for a top school to attend an institution suited to their abilities? One they are more likely to graduate from. He also says, "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." Isn't it possible that he is making a fundamental statistical error? Could there be a common factor that is responsible for both "income and poverty rates" and ACT scores? Could that factor be culture? I recognize that some people place a very high value on "equality" and "fairness", but doesn't such emphasis come at the expense of the general welfare?
Mike Wilkinson
Tue, 08/26/2014 - 4:12pm
Interesting question, Mr. Richards. But I'm curious, what do you mean by 'at the expense of the general welfare'? How would 'fairness' and 'equality' compromise the general welfare? Or would it, in your view?
Charles Richards
Sun, 08/31/2014 - 3:37pm
The general welfare is best promoted by the efficient use of resources. Something that Arthur Okun, Chairman of Lyndon Johnson's Council of Economic Advisers, acknowledged in his book "Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff." There is inevitably a conflict, or tradeoff, between efficiency and equality. Professor Okun called upon his readers to accept that fact and make a choice as to how much efficiency to give up for a given improvement in equality. He postulated a situation in which we were transferring resources from the top quintile of income earners to the bottom quintile of income earners in a leaky bucket. The resources that leaked out of the bucket were completely lost to the community. His question was this: What percentage of leakage would you tolerate before you decided that the cost to the community as a whole exceeded the benefits to the bottom quintile? Of course, any choice is perfectly legitimate, but citizens should make the choice explicitly, with their eyes wide open. Professor Okun, being very liberal, said he would accept the loss of ninety percent of the resources being transferred. Consider your implicit assumption that less qualified students should have access to our top public universities. You say, "“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?” Admitting less qualified students means that more resources would need to be invested in order for them to gain an education than somebody who was well qualified. It is undoubtedly "fair" to that student, and no doubt promotes "equality", but society as a whole is worse off. Marathon Oil, as part of a tax abatement agreement with the City of Detroit, established a process technology associate degree curriculum with a local community college. They offered and funded ten scholarships per year for Detroit residents. But, "Out of 37 scholarship recipients, only six completed the program, and only two of the six graduates were able to meet our requirements (which included testing and background checks, among others)." Obviously, those 37 scholarships would have provided much better results if given to more qualified, motivated individuals. Again, this is a case of promoting "fairness" and "equality", but at the expense of the community as a whole. It is a question of the particular interest versus the general interest. Of course, as I noted above with Professor Okun's question, any choice is legitimate, but the nature of the choice should be explicitly acknowledged. You did not do so.
RED Bloomfield Hills
Wed, 08/27/2014 - 11:40am
This is interesting but what would U of M score be if they had the same percentage of in state students as the other State Universities. Why are we investing Michigan tax dollars to educate out of state students who return to there home state for employment.
Mike Wilkinson
Wed, 08/27/2014 - 11:45am
Interesting question. The schools don't report ACT scores of in state vs. out state. Here's the out-state percentages for a few Michigan schools: UM, 42 percent; MSU, 27 percent; Michigan Tech, 28 percent; Central Michigan, 6 percent.
Jim L
Wed, 08/27/2014 - 3:53pm
The issue of investing MI tax dollars to educate out of state students doesn't bother me so much. After all the OOS student pays far more in tuition as well they should. The more important emphasis should be on retaining the talent once it graduates. There are as many "in state" students that leave after graduation because the opportunities don't appear to be here.
Thu, 08/28/2014 - 12:55am
Does a higher ACT score = more talented student applicant or does a higher ACT score = a student who learned how to take the ACT better? Standardized testing exists for a good reason but media outlets like this should be cautious before making such implications.
Thu, 08/28/2014 - 11:19pm
Could it be as simple as UofM has been doing a better job of branding which has brought them to the attention of the parents who have high expectations for their children at least for the undergraduate programs?
Sun, 08/31/2014 - 7:02am
Can someone explain why so many students in Michigan can't pass the Michigan test for teacher certification? For the July 12 test only 76% passed reading, 38% math, and 23% writing. This is across the state! There should be 2 different tests for math- one for math majors and one for non-majors. Someone who could be an excellent elementary teacher doesn't have a chance!