High school “senioritis” outlawed

For the first time, the University of Washington is systematically revoking the admission of high-school students who slack off during their senior year.

Over the summer, after reviewing final high-school transcripts, the UW rescinded 23 offers of admission to students who had been accepted in the spring. And by the time classes began last week, an additional 180 freshmen had received stern letters rebuking them for the “significant downturn” in their academic performance.

The phenomenon is so widespread it’s developed an informal name: “senioritis,” the tendency for high-school seniors – feeling assured of a university slot – to lose motivation, stop showing up to class, drop courses and generally slack off.

The UW plans to get even tougher next year. Officials say it’s only fair to those students who work hard right up until graduation.

“In the past, frankly, we didn’t have the resources to go over (final transcripts) with a fine-tooth comb. Unless it was absolutely in your face, we weren’t going to withdraw admission,” said Philip Ballinger, the UW’s director of admissions.

But that changed last fall with the introduction of a new “holistic” admissions system, in which the university no longer relies on grades to make any of its admissions decisions but reviews each applicant on a range of factors.

The two dozen extra staff employed by the UW to handle the increased workload have also been able to more carefully review final transcripts.

Ballinger said the rescinded students fell into three categories. There were those whose grades plummeted from A’s and B’s down to C’s, D’s and F’s. There were those who failed a required course such as math. And there were those who listed challenging senior courses on their applications but then dropped those courses or failed to complete them.

For one Seattle mom who didn’t want to be named because she didn’t want further attention for her son, the process has been harrowing. Not because her son’s admission was revoked – something she doesn’t take issue with – but because he didn’t find out until mid-August, after he’d already spent two days on campus registering for classes.

For weeks afterward, the family continued getting mail from the UW: a parking pass, a Husky welcome sticker, a tuition bill.

“It’s just hurtful to the family to still be receiving letters from the university when we’ve already been declined admission,” she said, adding that her son has been accepted at another four-year school in the state.

The UW application process begins with a mid-January deadline for students. Unlike many schools, the UW doesn’t initially require any transcripts but rather relies on students to accurately report grades and courses. Officials say misrepresentation at that stage is rare.

Students find out their admission status in the spring and are asked to confirm by May 1 whether they’re coming. But acceptance to the UW – or almost any other school – comes with an often-overlooked caveat stating that students must continue their work at an acceptable level through the remainder of their senior year.

The UW imposes a July 1 deadline to receive final high-school transcripts. The responsibility to provide the transcripts falls jointly to the student and the high school. Unfortunately, Ballinger said, because the UW didn’t receive some final transcripts until later in July this year, some students were notified late. He will push harder next year for high schools and students to provide transcripts earlier, he said – which he expects will also result in more offers being rescinded.

Admissions officers and counselors say that top private schools have long looked closely at final transcripts but that larger public schools typically haven’t. Many applaud the UW’s move.

“At Roosevelt, we think it’s wonderful. We’re always telling students that the second semester of their senior year counts. But then when they blow off a class and nothing happens, it’s hard for them to take us seriously,” said Wendy Krakauer, head counselor at Seattle’s Roosevelt High School. “This gives us a lot of ammunition.”

Other schools in the state are not necessarily looking to follow suit. At Washington State University, which operates on a semester system, classes start in August, more than a month earlier than at the UW. That doesn’t always allow staff time to review final transcripts before students enroll, said Wendy Peterson, WSU’s director of admissions.

Peterson added that students who do slack off in their senior year can be held back from starting their spring semester at WSU until they complete all requirements.

Seattle University this year rescinded three admission offers, said Michael McKeon, dean of admissions. A fourth student was allowed to continue after explaining extenuating circumstances. Each of the rescinded students is given the chance to perform well at a community college for the fall and get reinstated in time for winter quarter, McKeon said.

“If they’re not motivated, they’re going to drag down the other people who are,” McKeon said. “It’s a heck of a lot better that it happens to a child at 17 rather than at 27, when they might get fired on their first job.”

After a two-week appeal period is exhausted, the UW doesn’t give any special consideration to students whose offers are withdrawn. Students have the option of trying to transfer back to the UW after completing a year or two somewhere else.

A form letter sent to students whose admission has been revoked states: “(We) regret that we had to take this action and hope you will find an educational alternative that meets your needs.”

Ballinger said he feels awful for the students who receive the letter.

“After celebrating admission, I have no doubt that it is a hard letter and a shocking letter,” he said. “It’s very hard and we don’t like to do it. But it’s a matter of equity and fairness.”