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The Review of Higher Education 24.2 (2000) 131-152

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Aptitude Vs. Merit:
What Matters in Persistence

Edward P. St. John, Shouping Hu, Ada B. Simmons, and Glenda Droogsma Musoba


The new debate about the use of racial preferences in college admissions has raised questions about the measures of merit used in the admissions process. In Washington and California, the electorate has voted to eliminate racial preferences in admissions. In Texas, the Hopwood decision has eliminated the use of racial preferences for admission to public universities, while the University of Michigan is being sued (Gratz and Hamacher v. Bollinger et al.) over the use of race as a factor in its admissions process (Schmidt, 1998). These developments have set off a new wave of efforts to find other measures, in addition to standardized tests, that can be used to provide an approach to college admissions that will promote both fairness and diversity. As colleges experiment with different measures of merit that can be used in college admissions, it is also important to consider the potential effects of using these measures on persistence, given that attaining a [End Page 131] degree is one of the most important outcomes of higher education (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991).

The merit-aware index, derived from the differential of individuals' standardized Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and American College Test (ACT) scores and the average score for all college-going students in their high schools, provides an alternative measure of merit that can be used to increase diversity in college admissions (St. John, Simmons, & Musoba, in press). This paper compares the effects of SAT and the merit-aware index on within-year persistence of first-year college students. First, we describe the new policy context that has influenced efforts to find alternative measures that will both identify merit and promote diversity in admissions. Then we describe our research approach and present our analyses of the effects of one alternative measure of merit on persistence and grade point average (GPA). Finally, we consider the implications of the analysis for the new policy debates about affirmative action and diversity.

A Changing Policy Context

Legal challenges to racial preferences in college admissions raise serious questions for the entire higher education community. Historically, standardized admissions tests provided neutral measures of ability, or aptitude, for assessing the quality of applicants (Stewart, 1999). At the very least, the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and the American College Test (ACT) provide standardized measures of achievement that colleges can use to rate students from different high schools. For decades, colleges have used these tests as part of the admissions screening process; more recently, these tests have been used as indicators of college selectivity (Hossler & Litten, 1993). However, a new legal context is influencing a rethinking of merit measures in enrollment and raising questions about the long-term effects of alternative measures of merit.

A New Legal Context

The use of racial preferences in addition to standardized tests in undergraduate admissions emerged as a legal issue at the same time that the first [End Page 132] round of litigation over college segregation was completed in all states with a history of separate but equal systems of higher education. A brief review of both developments helps set the stage for this analysis.

Although college desegregation began, in West Virginia at least, after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, most states did not take action until after the initial Adams decisions in the middle 1970s. In response to these decisions, the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education required the Southern and border states with historically segregated systems to develop plans for systemwide desegregation. Most states developed plans that were eventually approved (Williams, 1977). By 1989, a court decision had been reached in Tennessee; Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi were still litigating; and the rest had approved plans.

In 1989, the Mississippi case (Fordice) reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Reviewing a Fifth Circuit Court decision that...