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Baylor pays freshmen to raise SAT scores

WACO, Texas (BP)–Baylor University offered incoming freshmen a $300 campus bookstore credit if they would retake the SAT last June, and those who raised their scores by at least 50 points were rewarded with $1,000 a year in merit scholarship aid, the school’s student newspaper reported in October.

About 28 percent of the newly admitted students accepted the offer, and 151 of them earned the $1,000 scholarships, collectively raising Baylor’s average SAT score for incoming freshmen from 1200 to 1210, still nine points below last year’s freshman class and three points below the 2006 class.

The offer for the class of 2012 came as Baylor dropped one point from No. 75 to No. 76 in the U.S. News and World Report ranking of colleges and universities, and it coincided with Baylor’s fast-approaching goal of achieving top-tier national college status by 2012.

“I found out that one main reason for Baylor’s drop in rank is because we accepted so many students this year with lower SAT scores,” Emanuel Gawrieh, a sophomore and a member of Baylor’s student advisory board, told The Baylor Lariat newspaper in a story published Oct. 9.

Reagan Ramsower, vice president for finance at Baylor, told The Lariat that the university had to recruit more students with a middle-ranking academic index in order to meet their enrollment goal of 3,000 freshmen.

“The university does benefit from higher average scores, and students benefited from book credits,” Ramsower said. “It’s a win-win situation.”

But Gawrieh and others said the deal amounted to Baylor, a 14,000-student Baptist-related university, paying for higher scores and rankings.

“We’re at a Christian institution where morals and values are supposed to be all that it’s about,” Gawrieh said. “That was stretched and left behind in this decision.”

Baylor’s Faculty Senate passed a motion criticizing the effort Oct. 15, saying the practice is “academically dishonest and should be discontinued.” About 5 percent of members expressed approval for the financial incentives, The Lariat said.

“It’s an issue of academic honesty,” Georgia Green, chair of the senate, told the campus newspaper. “We think it’s fine for students to retake the SAT to enter a higher scholarship bracket. What we disapprove of is giving a financial incentive to be able to say we have a higher average SAT score.”

Green, a music education professor who has taught at Baylor for more than 20 years, told The New York Times she heard about the incentive from a colleague in June and queried the school’s president, John Lilley. He said he was uninformed about it, and the issue soon was eclipsed by his dismissal in July.

News of Baylor’s SAT retakes came just weeks after the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) issued a report on the possible misuses of the SAT and ACT in college admissions and calling for a reexamination of their use.

“This appears to be the type of misuse of undergraduate admissions tests that the NACAC Testing Commission sought to identify and correct,” David Hawkins, director of public policy and research for NACAC, told The Times regarding Baylor.

Philip Ballinger, director of admissions at the University of Washington, was on the panel that drafted the report, and he told The Times that in more than 20 years of college admissions he had never heard of an institution using the SAT the way Baylor did.

“I’m just astounded that rankings would drive policy to such an extent,” Ballinger said. “It’s just rotten all around. The general context for this whole thing is that it’s simply a misuse of the test. But also it just separates this whole thing from the educational mission of a university. It’s just like all of a sudden people removed their brains and went to Mars.”

Baylor spokeswoman Lori Fogleman told the Waco Tribune-Herald that the decision to allow students to retake the SAT was made in early May with the goal of enabling incoming students to obtain the highest level of merit scholarships possible.

“We saw that we had merit aid available, and we wanted to make sure that it was distributed to a class of very academically talented students we felt were deserving of that merit aid,” Fogleman said in an article published Oct. 16.

Two calls placed by Baptist Press to Baylor’s media department were not returned by press time, and no statement from the school regarding the SAT retakes was posted on the school’s news page.

John Barry, Baylor’s vice president for communications and marketing, told The New York Times that the school’s decision to offer incentives was driven primarily by a desire to award merit aid, and he implied that the increased scores were a byproduct.

“Every university wants to have great SAT scores,” Barry said. “Every university wants to be perceived as having a high-quality class. We all wanted that. Were we happy our SAT scores went up? Yes. Did our students earn their scores? Yes they did.”

In remarks attributed to Barry, an article at insidehighered.com Oct. 15 said Baylor’s financial aid office thought that if accepted students would retake the SAT, many of them would receive higher scores that would make them eligible for the numerous merit scholarships that went unclaimed at the school when students didn’t qualify.

“Barry admitted that U.S. News was a factor, but he said it ‘was not the driver,'” the article said. “He explained that ‘all of us want bright classes of students, and we want to communicate that we recruit bright classes of students,’ he said, so rankings do matter. ‘To say we don’t pay attention to that would be false.'”

Green told the Tribune-Herald that the faculty never received official notification that the retakes were happening, and she expressed regret that the practice has generated negative publicity for the university.

“My first thought was, ‘Why don’t we just give every student a $300 textbook account?’ Wouldn’t that be great?” Green said. “It just seems there’s a lot of other ways to do it besides the way they did it if [providing more merit-based financial aid] is their motive.”

An Oct. 14 editorial in The Lariat said Baylor appears to be “using some cheap ploys to better its rankings.”

“Since students don’t really have any use for SAT scores once they are accepted into college, it seems Baylor’s motives for the retesting opportunity were purely selfish,” the campus newspaper said.

The editorial said the incentives were unfair to upperclassmen who also must pay large sums of money for textbooks and could use tuition breaks. They didn’t get a second chance at SAT scores once they were accepted, and they were not offered such perks.

“Baylor officials also could not tell the Lariat where the money to pay for these incentives came from,” the newspaper said. “There were 861 students who took advantage of the offer, receiving the $300 credit to the bookstore. That’s $258,300. Of the 861, 151 scored the extra 50 points or more to receive the $1,000 added to their scholarship packages or achieved a higher scholarship level. That’s at least another $151,000. Altogether, that’s $409,300 that had to come from somewhere, potentially students’ tuition.”

In response to a Baptist Press request for comment, Tim Fields, director of communications for the International Association of Baptist Colleges and Universities, said the association “has no governance over any of our member schools.”

“That is the role of each school’s board of trustees,” Fields said, adding that for the association to comment on the Baylor matter “is outside our authority, mission and scope as an association.”

In regard to the policies of any of the 51 member schools, Mike Arrington, executive director of the association, said in a statement to BP, “The International Association of Baptist Colleges and Universities supports the right of our member schools to make internal decisions that they feel are in the best interest of their students and their institution.”
Compiled by Baptist Press staff writer Erin Roach.

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