Promoting Diversity Using Motivation-Based Admissions Screening - Higher Education
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Promoting Diversity Using Motivation-Based Admissions Screening

by Andrej Arsovski

Motivation is the most critical element to success. It is this highly valuable consequence of motivation that makes it a primary concern for managers, teachers, religious leaders, coaches, health care providers, parents and others concerned with mobilizing others to act.

People are moved to act by very different types of factors. They can be motivated because they find an activity enjoyable or because there is a strong external coercion. They can be urged by an abiding interest or a bribe, or by fear of being judged and punished. These contrasts between being intrinsically motivated or externally pressured are familiar to all of us.

The theory or motivation, or Self-Determination Theory (SDT), was initially developed by Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan and has been elaborated and defined by academics from around the world. It has been studied in education, entertainment and media, health care, organizations and work, video games, physical activity and exercise and other applied domains. The nature of a person’s motivation is important because people whose motivation is genuine or self-authored have more interest, excitement and confidence, which results in enhanced performance, persistence, creativity, self-esteem and general well-being when compared to those externally controlled to act. This is true even when both groups are equally competent or effective for an activity.

People are motivated from within by interests, curiosity or care. These intrinsic motivations are not necessarily externally acknowledged, rewarded or supported, yet they can sustain efforts, passions and creativity. In other words, intrinsic motivation is behaving “for its own sake.” Threats, deadlines, directives, imposed goals, pressured evaluations and even tangible rewards diminish intrinsic motivation, while autonomy, optimal challenge and relatedness enhance it.

Whereas intrinsic motivation means doing an activity for the inherent satisfaction of the activity itself, extrinsic motivation means doing an activity to attain some form of externally driven outcome. Examples include grades, work evaluations, deadlines, status, bonuses or a fear of being judged.

Motivation is particularly valuable in education. Intrinsically motivated students are more likely to stay in school longer. Elementary students who report more autonomous motivation for doing schoolwork had greater conceptual learning and better memory. Students who have greater intrinsic motivation show more positive emotions in the classroom, more enjoyment of academic work and more satisfaction with school than do students whose motivational profiles are less autonomous.

The data unambiguously suggests that having intrinsically motivated students benefits not only the student, but society. In medicine, for example, it is imperative for the good of the individual and the community that our health care professionals are not primarily motivated by financial gain.

Unfortunately, despite the widely accepted benefits, recruiters and admissions departments – particularly those for professional programs – continue to use outdated admissions practices. Importantly, current college admissions practices are permeated with inherent bias and inevitably introduce barriers to underrepresented minorities and applicants of lower socioeconomic status. They also fail to select intrinsically motivated individuals.

A recent study of medical school students and residents found that three-fourths of future doctors were primarily motivated to apply to medical school by financial gain, status or familial tradition. An AAMC survey of graduating medical students showed the same lack of intrinsic motivation. Almost one-third of those accepted come from households making over $120,000 a year. Less than 10 percent of the general population in the U.S. makes over $100,000 a year. The majority of respondents in the study, 54 percent, identified as Caucasian with 39 percent of those coming from families earning over $120,000 a year, the highest proportion of all groups.

The same trends were observed in Canadian students and residents. Importantly, all of the different admissions tests the students were selected with – such as the multiple mini interview (MMI), CASPer test, traditional interviews and MCAT – showed the same bias favoring wealthy, White and extrinsically motivated applicants. This underrepresentation of people of color in medicine is thought to exacerbate current racial health care disparities.

Motivation, however, does not correlate with gender, race, and socioeconomic status as our studies and others have demonstrated.

Bias is a formidable foe to equity. Eliminating bias from the admissions process, as from anything else, is impossible. Bias exists at all levels of the admissions process. High scores on standardized tests are associated with being White, male and wealthy. Having a financial advantage affects academic decisions from an early age, such as private vs. public, highly rated districts, specialized/magnet schools, after-school clubs and activities and eventually preparation for the SAT or other entrance exams.

Importantly, more affluent applicants have inherently more time to dedicate to studying. Personal statements also are problematic, as they betray the anonymity of the process and the applicant can then become vulnerable to the implicit biases of the audience. In-person interviews are extremely vulnerable to the reliability of the person conducting the interview. Interviewers are subconsciously drawn to applicants most like themselves and give applicants higher scores when personality preferences (measured by the Myers-Briggs scale) match.

Situational judgment tests (SJTs) don’t do any better, either. They have been shown to cause both gender and socioeconomic bias, perhaps because wealthier applicants are better able to formulate a socially acceptable response to a hypothetical scenario.

Finally, none of these admissions screening tools have been validated to correlate with on-the-job behavior – not surprising because test scores don’t predicate behavior, motivation does. The result of relying on a flawed admissions process will ensure that future classes continue to resemble those of the past.

However, bias can be circumvented with a rationally designed, controlled admissions approach. This includes reducing the reliance on standardized tests to set arbitrary cut-offs that can drastically reduce the talent pool; limiting observer bias by masking gender, racial, cultural and economic identifiers; using a rigorous standardized rubric whenever person-to-person interaction is required; and having multiple professionally trained raters.

Screening based on intrinsic motivation is an important part of this equation. Intrinsically motivated students can succeed, perform at a high level and generally have a more positive and fulfilling higher education experience. Reshaping college admissions based on these criteria can increase diversity in higher education and ultimately in the positions of power: law enforcement, law, politics and medicine.

A community derives its vitality from diversity, and current college admissions are a diversity bottleneck. The above-mentioned interventions can help, but admissions dDepartments must acknowledge and actively confront this problem.

Dr. Andrej Arsovski is a Visiting Scientist and Lecturer at the University of Washington and a Senior Scientist and diversity advocate at SortSmart Candidate Selection and BeMo Academic Consulting.

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