I took my Introduction to Economics final five days after my grandmother was hospitalized due to heart failure and sepsis. Come exam day, I gave the assessment an admittedly half-assed effort.
I received a D on the test and ended the course with a C+.
Despite earning As in the remainder of my courses, I knew I had severely reduced my chances of getting into UNC’s highly selective business administration major in the fall. I submitted an appeal to the University and asked them to drop the score from my transcript. They denied my request because guidelines do not support dropping courses with a grade of C or better — "regardless of circumstances."
Unexpected challenges that arise at inopportune times are a part of life. That said, did my loved one’s diagnosis affect my ability to deliver on the final? Yes, it did.
This grade marked the genesis of my academic “identity crisis.” I came to UNC with the intention to study business, but now I had no idea what I wanted to study. I felt like a failure, but also somewhat relieved. After applying to — and getting rejected from — more colleges than I care to admit, the mere thought of having to undergo a similar process just to pursue a major exasperated me.
My situation was not unique. When one of my friends discovered that UNC’s computer science program now requires students to apply to the major, she transferred to N.C. State. Worries emerged about admissions-based policies in other departments.
If the application to UNC was the "weed-out" process, why does the school withhold entry to popular fields of study?
Last April, when plans to move to an admission-based system were first announced, the computer science department said the goal was to eventually halve the number of undergraduate computer science majors. This decision occurred due to faculty shortages, which worsened after two senior, tenure-track professors retired. They had contributed 25 percent of the department’s teaching capacity.
The department went back on the decision briefly after, but has since implemented an admissions policy for students who enter UNC in fall 2022.
“The students that will be affected are the students that didn’t know they wanted to declare the major,” department Chairperson Kevin Jeffay said at the time.
These words testify to a much larger problem at play:
Major selectivity undercuts the University’s emphasis on curricular flexibility, a core tenet of the “liberal arts” educational experience. While UNC takes pride in helping students foster intellectual curiosity, introducing an admissions process for popular majors bars hundreds, possibly thousands, from pursuing their interests.
This problem is not exclusive to the computer science program.
The Kenan-Flagler Business School, with an acceptance rate of just over 11 percent, accepts around 350 to 390 majors and 50 to 70 minors, according to its admissions page.
The average SAT score for accepted students was 1451, and about 77 percent of these students were in the top 10 percent of their high school class.
For students who do not have the resources to excel on standardized tests or attended high schools that do not offer Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes to prepare them for UNC’s rigorous prerequisite courses, Kenan-Flagler’s heavy focus on GPA can severely harm chances of acceptance.
The first year of college often poses a myriad of difficulties, such as homesickness, burnout, financial insecurity and impostor syndrome — all of which may impact a student’s academic performance and community engagement.
While extenuating circumstances can occur at any point in time, the transition from high school to college can exacerbate these challenges. UNC’s academic programs must take these multifaceted factors into account when deciding whether an admissions process is appropriate.
The fact is, the new system makes sense. High student demand combined with staffing shortages attests to how these policies are necessary for ensuring that students who are admitted receive quality instruction.
But at a true liberal arts institution, everyone should receive the opportunity to take classes that interest them or to change their major at any point — without having to undergo a strenuous application process.
First-year students should not have to plan the entirety of their academic career before they set foot on campus just because the University does not have the resources to help satisfy their undergraduate goals.
At the very least, UNC should deemphasize the importance of grades in the admissions process to prevent giving privileged students with disproportionate access to resources an unfair advantage.
But the most impactful solutions are the responsibility of the University administration.
They must prioritize hiring and retaining more professors to meet the demand for popular majors so the burden of poor faculty retention does not fall on overwhelmed undergraduates.
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