Digest No. 07 - January 2020

Use of Nonacademic Factors in Holistic Undergraduate Admissions Reviews

Hossler, D., E. Chung, J. Kwon, J. Lucido, N. Bowman, and M. Bastedo. 2019. “A Study of the Use of Nonacademic Factors in Holistic Undergraduate Admissions Reviews.” The Journal of Higher Education 90 (6): 833–859.


This study examined the use of nonacademic factors on holistic admissions decision making. The authors adopted a multi-pronged approach to investigate the ways admissions officers use nonacademic factors when making decisions. They surveyed more than 300 admissions professionals; of those, they interviewed 19 who worked at one of ten private and public institutions with varying degrees of selectivity. Results indicated that these factors were often used differentially, based on the selectivity of the institution. While all institutions used nonacademic indicators of success as admissions criteria, officers from less selective institutions were more likely to use these factors to “admit students who might not otherwise be admitted” thus providing “an explanation for admitting students whose profile does not suggest that [they] will be academically successful” (p. 19).


The authors frame their study as critically important given the increased scrutiny institutions are facing regarding admissions on college campuses. They draw from Sedlacek’s (2011) work to define nonacademic factors (NAFs) as “variables relating to adjustment, motivation, and student perceptions, rather than the traditional verbal and quantitative (often called cognitive) areas typically measured by standardized tests” (p. 17). Of course, the challenge the authors note in studying the use of these factors in admissions is that the factors are often introduced arbitrarily, resulting in inconsistent application across cases and in a lack of transparency surrounding their use. That said, the authors used a mixed-methods approach to answer the following research questions: “(1) What types of NAFS are most frequently used? (2) How important are NAFs relative to student and high school contextual factors? And (3) How do institutional control and selectivity influence the use of NAFs?” (p. 4).

In response to the first question, the following NAFs were ranked based on the importance admissions officers ascribed to them in making decisions: performance factors, attitudinal factors, creativity, and grit. Performance factors encompass a host of ideas, including but not limited to level of engagement, ability to manipulate specialized knowledge, ability to link knowledge across domains, and the degree to which the applicant devotes extra time to task completion, avoids negative behaviors, sets goals, and supervises tasks. Attitudinal factors include “self-concept, self-efficacy, attribution tendencies, interests, social attitudes/values/beliefs, ethics/morality, intercultural sensitivity, and adaptability/flexibility” (p. 14). Creativity and grit also were important, although they received less attention in the study’s narrative.

Turning to the second research question, the NAFs were third in importance when making an admissions decision. Indeed, academic factors received the most weight for admissions. Next came contextual factors, including whether a student identified as first-generation or as someone from a single-parent home. The aforementioned NAFs were given less weight than these other two factors but may have played more of a role at less selective institutions when compared with their highly selective counterparts.

The most salient response to the third research question included use of NAFs among institutions that were not as selective as others. Among these institutions, the NAFs were used to push otherwise non-admissible students toward a more positive admissions profile. The authors postulate that admissions officers at less selective institutions may be “looking for a story” (p. 19) to justify admitting students whose academic and contextual profiles would otherwise discourage a positive admissions review.


Although the authors focus on court cases as expressions of this scrutiny, recent issues regarding children of celebrities and/or wealthy parents have brought admissions to the forefront of the American consciousness (and often criticism) regarding college-going. How does admission to a certain type of institution further codify an elite class? Particularly when bought using fraudulent admissions pathways available only to the wealthiest Americans? How private institutions contribute to this class codification—through their admissions processes—is as interesting as it is complicated, especially as stakeholders balance the trade-offs between admissions processes that sustain and increase prestige with those that provide access to those most in need of higher education.

How CIC admissions officers use NAFs—in conjunction with academic and contextual factors—is worth a second look. Examples of performance factors, attitudinal factors, creativity, and grit and their use in admissions decisions may help CIC members recruit, admit, and optimize the type of educational cohort more reflective of the values the institution holds. Indeed, prioritizing NAFs may reach the admits most in need of the type of education CIC members can deliver.

About the Author

Don Hossler is senior scholar in the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education.

Emily Chung is associate director of the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education.

Jihye Kwon is analyst for co-curricular assessment and research at the Northern Kentucky University.

Jerry Lucido is executive director of the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education.

Nicholas Bowman is a professor in the Higher Education and Student Affairs Program and the director of the Center for Research on Undergraduate Education at the University of Iowa.

Michael Bastedo is professor and director, Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education, University of Michigan.

Literature Readers May Wish to Consult

Bastedo, M. N. 2018. “What Are We Talking about When We Talk about Holistic Review? Selective College Admissions and Its Effects on Low-SES Students.” The Journal of Higher Education 89 (5): 782–805.

Kalsbeek, D., M. Sandlin, and W. Sedlacek. 2013. “Employing Noncognitive Variables to Improve Admissions, and Increase Student Diversity and Retention.” Strategic Enrollment Management Quarterly 1 (2): 132–150.