Philosopher and scientist Aristotle famously said, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” That wisdom from 2,500 years ago is guiding a new look at admissions to veterinary colleges.
A selection committee of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC) has chosen MU’s College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM), along with the University of Florida CVM and North Carolina State University CVM, to participate in a pilot program designed to help veterinary colleges and schools develop holistic admissions programs.
Holistic admissions is a developing program to foster greater diversity and inclusion among incoming students, with the net effect of enriching the profession with practitioners who better represent the clients they serve.
According to the AAVMC, holistic admissions processes evaluate academic performance and aptitude, but also consider “qualitative factors known to contribute to a candidate’s ultimate success as a student and career professional. Those factors include more intangible attributes, such as intrinsic motivation, leadership, grit, resilience, communications skills, empathy, tenacity in the face of poor grades or adversity, demonstrated success in a working environment, and high ethical standards.”
“The AAVMC pilot program will offer us expertise at the national level,” says Linda Berent, CVM associate dean of academic affairs. “They’ll give us the tools we need and the education we need to really look at what we’re doing in admissions — what we need to keep because it’s good and what we need to alter because it may not be as effective as we need it to be.
“We need to evaluate critically what we do in our admissions, because holistic application review is really looking at the whole individual, what they bring as a whole package, and not just looking at grades,” Berent, DVM, PhD, says. “This isn’t just looking at gender, race or background, we’re looking at the whole person.”
In addition to the external expertise offered by the AAVMC, the CVM’s Admissions Committee will guide the internal portion of the program.
“This is going to be a year-long process where I’m working with the Admissions Committee as the key faculty,” Berent says. “It is our senior leadership for admissions and curriculum: Associate Dean for Student Affairs Angela Tennison; Kathy Seay, our admissions manager; Tamara Hancock, coordinator of curriculum and student outcomes; and Dean Carolyn Henry is obviously going to be involved.
“The Admissions Committee will be doing a lot of work on this,” Berent says. “The process will be faculty driven. We had seven faculty at the initial meeting. Each year, faculty members rotate off the Admissions Committee, but most have agreed to serve an extra year as part of this review process. This will be like our emeritus, experienced Admissions Committee members looking at how we can make potential changes, not for this year, but for the coming years.”
Veterinary medicine’s struggles with diversity and inclusion are well-documented. According to the AAVMC, 97.3 percent of veterinarians in the workforce in 2013 were white. Accordingly, increasing the presence of under-represented students in the college’s applicant pool is a priority of the CVM’s holistic admissions program.
“To be clear, under-represented students include characteristics that transcend racial distinctions,” Berent says. “They can also be low socio-economic status. Men tend to be under-represented in our pool. Rural communities tend to be under-represented in our pool right now. Part of our initiative is to bring more rural kids into our Ag Scholars Program.
“I really want some of these experts to come in and help us ensure we’re not disadvantaging people from poor, rural school systems who may not compete well in college. As a result, they never even make it to the application point, because of where we set our minimum standards. Another aspect is that, usually, where we find our rural kids in Missouri, we also find much less racial diversity, so we want to look at that as well.”
Berent says first-generation college students are another constituency historically under-represented in professional schools.
“They will generally have a GPA that is 0.3 lower than a second-generation student,” Berent says. “So, you’re talking about the difference between a 3.7 and a 3.4, and that can definitely make or break you getting into vet school. If you’re talking about the difference between a 3.2 and a 2.9, you don’t even get to apply. That’s largely because of parents who lack experience and historical knowledge of university processes, so they can’t serve as effective mentors. Parents who have been to college can often tell their child how to protect a GPA. For example, make sure you know your drop dates. If a student is overloaded, or can’t handle the rigors of the subject matter, or is in danger of failing the class, they need to be sure and drop that course. Some students may not realize that option is even available to them. After someone has been through it, they learn strategic planning in protecting their GPA. It’s important to have a relative or other mentor with experience, who understands and can support, ‘Don’t worry, I know why you dropped that class.’ Having that experience available makes a huge difference.”
Berent emphasizes that she doesn’t want to “scare anyone out there who’s been working toward this admissions process for 10 years, thinking that we’re overhauling everything. We’re going to have some help looking at what we’re doing so we can refine it. It’s good to look at what you’re doing to see how you can improve and do things better. If we’re ever at a place where we can’t learn, then we’re stagnant. Times change, and if we’re still doing the same things we were doing 15 years ago, we need to look at that. That’s what we’re doing, and we’re excited about it.”
Humans are multi-dimensional beings, so a holistic process would be an integrated approach that considers all aspects of an individual’s life and work.
“Academics are already only 40 percent of our admissions equation,” Berent says. “But, we’re being encouraged to look at who and what we want, and how we go about quantifying that. They (the AAVMC) asked, ‘Why did you set your minimum GPA as 3.0?’ I could only answer that it’s always been that. It raises the question of whether GPA is related to ‘smarts’? Do we need to use the Graduate Records Examination (GRE)? Right now, we use the GRE to a very small extent, because we always have. Some schools are dropping the GRE because standardized tests can be biased and don’t necessarily predict success. So, we’re looking at all of those things to make sure we’re not doing something unintentional that detracts from the success of our target populations.
“We tend to put a lot of emphasis on — and can be easily blown away by — those students with the awesome resumes, who have done this internship, traveled abroad and obtained all this varied experience,” Berent relates. “But, to get all of those experiences, that student held unpaid positions. That student has never worked. Should we prefer students who don’t have to work for a living? That phenomenon has also led to an almost binomial distribution in our debt load, too. There are some students with very little debt, because they come from a background where they can pay for their school, and others with an enormous amount of debt. That has bothered me for a while.
“We need to make sure we’re not preferentially bringing in those people who went to that good prep school in St. Louis, who took the ACT multiple times, who knew how to play the game, who knew how to get in,” Berent says. “Let’s make sure everyone else has a seat at the table. That is my hope for this program.”