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Baylor states regret for cash incentives

WACO, Texas (BP)–Baylor University’s vice president for marketing and communications told Baptist Press Oct. 16 that the school regrets offering students cash incentives for retaking the SAT, a program he said was motivated by a desire to permit students access to additional financial aid.

“In retrospect, we regret now the cash incentive,” John Barry said. “We’ve heard the criticism; we understand the criticism. It at least has the appearance of impropriety. I would tell you that was never our intent. Our intent was to try to be creative and to encourage students to take a test that would then allow them access to financial aid money that we thought they were entitled to.”

In response to inquiries from students and parents, Barry said Baylor decided to move up the admissions process last year so they could notify students of award packages earlier, presumably to help students decide which college to attend.

“So we began encouraging applications and accepting applications in July and August and September,” Barry said. “We promised those candidates that if they got their materials in early, we’d render a decision in November. Furthermore, we told them that we would accept no scores, no further information after February. So we pushed our whole process, all our deadlines up further.”

In May, Baylor administrators noticed that the school had committed less financial aid than they had expected to award by that time, Barry said.

“The other thing was that our SAT scores were down. We kind of put those things together, and we talked as a group and tried to understand what might be happening,” he said. “Our conclusion was that in pushing our processes so far forward, what we might have done is prohibit smart students, capable students, from retaking the SAT and scoring and doing better on their scores and therefore qualifying for higher levels of merit aid.

“In effect, we felt like we were penalizing students. We were trying to help them by moving the deadlines up, but our conclusion was that we might be penalizing them by our processes,” Barry added. “Our plan was to distribute that financial aid, and we were committed to doing that, so that’s when we came up with this idea of what if we forget the February deadline we established, let’s go out to our incoming class and invite them — should they care to — to retake the SAT.

“Our concern was it was going to be summer and the students were going to be moving on with other things, and we were concerned that they wouldn’t take advantage of that offer. That’s when we came up with the idea of what if we provide an incentive of some kind,” he said.

Baylor, a 14,000-student Baptist-related university, opted to give each incoming freshman a $300 book scholarship redeemable at the campus bookstore just for retaking the exam last June.

“We were concerned that maybe that wouldn’t be enough, and we thought, ‘OK, well how about then in addition if a student does well and scores 50 points or more, we provide that additional $1,000 incentive?'” Barry recounted. “Obviously the goal was if a student sits for the SAT and in fact scores at a level that now qualifies them for one of the established merit scholarships we have, which are a combination of SAT score and class rank, then they would obviously qualify for that merit aid additionally.”

Since news of the incentive program broke Oct. 9 in the Baylor campus newspaper, The Lariat, controversy has ensued, including several academic experts who have said Baylor misused the SAT in order to boost their status in the U.S. News and World Report ranking of colleges and universities. Baylor now stands at No. 76 and has expressed a fervent desire to rank in the top tier of schools by 2012.

Baylor’s Faculty Senate passed a motion criticizing the incentives program Oct. 15, saying the practice is “academically dishonest and should be discontinued.”

“It’s an issue of academic honesty,” Georgia Green, chair of the senate, told The Lariat. “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.”

Barry told BP it “was routine at Baylor until two weeks ago and it is routine at many universities around the nation” to permit students who have already been admitted to provide additional SAT scores if those scores would benefit their academic profile.

“That is not in the least unusual,” he said. “Schools nationally do that. So the notion that has been expressed by some that it’s unusual to accept SAT scores after a student is admitted is not true. In fact, schools do that routinely, and the reason they do is very many schools have merit-based scholarships established that have as their benchmarks certain SAT scores and certain class ranks.

“So if you have applied and been accepted to the institution but perhaps not qualified for a level of merit or qualified at a lower level of merit, the fact that you’ve subsequently taken an SAT score that now would permit you access to those higher merit scholarships are things universities welcome,” Barry said. “That’s an important point, and I think in some ways that’s been an unfair and I think untrue criticism.”

Asked why the admissions office did not notify the Faculty Senate about the incentive program, Barry said he didn’t think such admissions or financial aid programs generally were run by the representative body.

“There is a faculty admissions committee. There is an enrollment services committee that includes deans and others,” he said. “Characteristically those are the bodies where we are routinely providing reports on our progress, and those bodies are each charged with different sorts of decision-making.

“I believe the enrollment services body may have heard about — we may have reported to them about the program — but routinely it would not be the case that we would go to the Faculty Senate for approval of these kinds of programs,” Barry said.

Barry expressed an intention to alter the school’s practice in the future.

“The thing that we regret, and the mistake we made was to provide the cash incentives. It was motivated by a desire to recognize a mistake we had made in a process and to permit students access to additional financial aid. We probably shouldn’t have done that,” he said. “We should have just communicated it as strongly as we could and hoped that students would take advantage of the opportunity. We shouldn’t have provided the cash incentive.

“That said, we will continue — and as I say, most universities do — that if a student is admitted and takes a subsequent test score and does better on that test score and it’s going to help their financial aid in any way, shape or form, we’ll continue to accept that information, as would I think very, very, very many other national universities.”

Asked whether it is routine for other universities to host SAT retakes on their campus, Barry said, “I don’t know. I can’t speak to that. It is a College Board program that permits colleges and universities to host SAT sessions on their campus. How many actually do that and why they do it, I just can’t speak to that.”

Baylor’s residual SAT program was unique in that a student’s score could only be used at Baylor and could not be transferred to other universities, The Lariat reported.

About 28 percent of the newly admitted Baylor students accepted the incentives offer, and 151 of them earned the $1,000 per year merit 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.
Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.

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