How open admissions is dismantling educational barriers for art students

Expanding access to an art and design education means not basing admission on SAT or ACT scores, portfolios for undergraduates, proof of high grades or lengthy essays.

The educational and career landscape is shifting fast. Students and administrators alike are asking the same questions: how can students best prepare for the future? How can they access the best education?

What’s apparent is that obtaining a college degree is still the dream for many students. And this desire to learn means more than just fulfilling a dream or exploring potential paths. It’s about securing a better quality of life.

In the United States, people who graduate with a bachelor’s degree earn 84% more on average than those with just a high school degree. Bachelor degree-holders are 3.5 times less likely to experience poverty, and 47% more likely to have health insurance provided through their job. Some studies have even found that life expectancy is longer for those who attend college.

It stands to reason that everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status, disabilities, or ethnicity should have equal access to these benefits. Unfortunately, this is not the case today—there are many barriers that prevent a diverse swath of students from participating in higher-education. As the president of an arts and design university, one of the ways we’ve found to close this gap is through an open admissions policy.

The trouble with strict entrance requirements

One of the failures of stringent university admissions requirements is that a student’s future performance is heavily based on their high school performance. The challenge with this is that many students may simply not have had the support needed to thrive during their high school years, making their current scores, grades and portfolio an unfair assessment of potential.

For example, people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds statistically do not perform as well in high school overall, when compared to economically advantaged ones. One study reported that the dropout rate for students from low-income families was 8.7%, compared to just 2% from higher income families. Evaluating these students against hard and fast intake requirements does not always offer an accurate assessment of their potential; all too often, their past performance reflects circumstance.

Countless circumstances outside their control or life choices may have led to someone not having the prerequisites a university demands for entry. Those with disabilities whose school lacked funding for a support worker, people from low socioeconomic backgrounds on the brink of poverty, or people whose life experiences simply took them down a path fraught with obstacles, are all real scenarios of people starting down their higher-education path with a disadvantage, not necessarily a lack of talent or potential.

Why open admissions works

At our university, students often come from communities where high schools were subpar—or from households that were lacking educational support and money for after-school art classes to develop a portfolio. As a result, many are pursuing a creative career in spite of these obstacles.

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Many of our students could be described as the proverbial “square peg” that didn’t fit into the “round hole” of public education. Sometimes this is because they needed special support that wasn’t available. Others simply hated traditional education and checked out. While roughly half of our students are classified as Gen Z, the other half are older students who deferred education—often for economic reasons, or because they’re returning to school after a hiatus. Many of our students hold full or part-time jobs to support themselves and their families.

Most of the students would not perform well on standardized tests, and their grades reflect their high school educational challenges. As a school administrator deciding who gets in and who doesn’t, the question here becomes clear: should these students also be granted access to an art and design university education? Personally, I think the answer is yes.

I believe that a high quality education should be accessible to anyone who is willing to put in the work required to graduate. Removing barriers to an art and design university education means admission should not be based on SAT or ACT scores, portfolios for undergraduates, proof of high grades, or lengthy essays.

This type of open admissions approach is viewed by some as exploitative, or an old fashioned money grab used to get students in the door. I see removing entry barriers and prioritizing inclusivity when it comes to higher education as an incredibly powerful mobilizer.

Our graduates have gone on to achieve some incredible career milestones. We’ve watched students become senior vice presidents at multinational corporations, Emmy award winning film directors, heads of game design enterprises, world-renowned fashion designers, and leaders in multiple artistic fields. Without a university education, all of these individuals would have faced a very different future than the one they’re living now.

Ways forward

Whether a university chooses to embrace open admissions or not, I believe every educational institution should take an active approach to reduce barriers for disadvantaged and underrepresented students. Not doing so is not only detrimental to these students, but also to the future of these institutions.

In May of 2021, the University of California system terminated the requirement for SAT and ACT scores in their application process. This was the result of a lawsuit they faced in 2019, when they were sued for their student testing and admission practices. Students and advocacy groups in a largely African-American and Hispanic California school district argued that using SAT scores in admission decisions was discriminatory against low-income Black and Hispanic students. By requiring these standardized test scores, the school system was perpetuating the inequality in a test-prep industry where only affluent families can afford tutoring and preparation, leaving low-income students unfairly behind.

Another approach some take in dealing with students who are traditionally underqualified, is pushing them towards a community college. At these institutions, students can collect their general education credits before transferring to a four-year university. But to this I also ask, why? Why should students have to postpone their arts education to get a good grade in algebra, before they can start studying what they’re passionate about, and begin honing those skills?

Other schools will just look at portfolios during admissions and ignore grades entirely. For example, some private art and design universities offer a few tuition-free spots to exceptional high school artists based on their portfolio quality. This process ignores low board scores and poor grades, with the goal of furthering inclusion in their intake process. However, this allowance still doesn’t account for the group of students who were not able to create a stellar portfolio in high school due to life circumstances.

These students also deserve the opportunity to fully explore their talents and receive a college education. When students are accepted at universities with open admission policies, it is incumbent upon those institutions to provide foundational educational courses in the freshman year to level the playing field between the students who have had prior arts education and those who did not.

The central question is, if a student can’t prove themselves as an artist before they head off to university, should they be denied the chance to do so? When you look at the many years that Picasso, Rembrandt, and other legends of the art world labored in ignominy before their genius was recognized, it surely answers that question. Yet, many schools have closed the door on aspiring art students, shuttering the opportunity to improve their skills and hone their craft unless they can prove they’re worth it first.

The higher education tide is slowly turning to include more people from diverse and non-conforming backgrounds, but this change is not happening fast enough to account for the next generation of creative talents. Until the system properly meets this need as a whole, we will continue to champion diversity in schools and remove barriers, so all students can gain a quality arts education, not just the privileged few.

Elisa Stephens
Elisa Stephens
Elisa Stephens is president of Academy of Art University, a for-profit open admissions art and design school that champions inclusion, diversity, and accessibility for all students pursuing higher education.

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