Officials: Sponsorship program needs review

When Nicholas Hipskind sees a promising potential student who just doesn’t look good on paper, IU gives the retired professor what he calls “a gift.”

If an applicant to the University gets denied, Hipskind can step in as a faculty sponsor to vouch for the student’s character and help grant him or her special admission.

With the right student, the right sponsor and the right situation, a second chance is all an applicant needs.

“What I’ve learned is the kid who really wants to make it,” said Hipskind, who has sponsored about 10 students, “with your help, can make it.”

Once a process that granted about 40 to 50 exceptions a year, the sponsorship program has increased more than 150 percent in four years. Now, some administrators and faculty members are looking to review the system.

The jump in exceptions comes as more students than ever are applying to IU, making the admissions process increasingly competitive.

Between 2004 and 2008, the average SAT score for an incoming freshman increased by more than 5 percent – from 1112 to 1174 out of 1600.

IU also received 10,000 more applications in 2008 than it did four years ago, jumping from 21,132 in 2004 to 31,177 in 2008.

With those increases has come a surge in the number of students seeking and receiving exceptions to the standards.

In 2005, the University admitted 45 students on faculty sponsorships, according to numbers provided by Roger Thompson, vice provost for enrollment management. In 2006, the number was 59. The next year, the number of sponsorships more than doubled to 137. This year, 129 students who were originally denied admission were admitted through the sponsorship program.

While administrators always like to see the number of applicants and average SAT score increase, a high number of faculty sponsorships does not always look good, said Ken Gros Louis, University chancellor.

“If the number gets too big, in some way it could hurt IU’s reputation,” he said.
And because the University

expects the freshman class profile to keep improving, he said the trend of increased faculty sponsorships could continue unless someone takes a good look at the system.

The faculty sponsorship policy in use today has changed little since it was passed by the board of trustees in 1960, when Herman B Wells was president of the University.

“So much has changed that I don’t think that we’re doing our job well if we don’t go back and review it a little bit,” Thompson said.

Thompson and Bloomington Faculty Council President Herb Terry said they both plan to try to start a dialogue about having the process reviewed this semester. Thompson is uncertain about how it would be reviewed, who would review it and whether any changes would come, but he said he would want to involve faculty, students and staff.

Last year, Provost Karen Hanson assembled a committee of faculty members and admissions professionals to examine the causes and effects of the increase.

The committee recommended two minor changes to the process. First, they started to require sponsors to receive the students’ midterm grades. Second, they placed limits on who could sponsor a student. In the past, some people who were not tenure-track faculty members were allowed to sponsor students. This is still allowed, but exceptions must be approved by the committee.

Hanson said her team will re-evaluate the process again this year.

“The idea was to kind of keep an eye on this, and that’s where we stand right now,” Hanson said.

To receive a sponsorship, students must sign a statement describing their relationship with the faculty member and commit to taking 12 credit hours per semester.

Final approval comes from one of three faculty committees: one set aside for music students, another for athletes and a third for all remaining students.

Hipskind, who is retired from the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences, continues to sponsor students since he is still involved as a student advocate and a residential fellow, a program that connects faculty members with campus residence halls.

He said the amount of involvement a sponsor has with the student is up to the faculty member, but he said he believes an uninvolved sponsor isn’t doing a student any favors.

Furthermore, his experience tells him that sponsoring a student he doesn’t really know ­– such as a friend of a friend of a friend – is often a path to failure.

“We meet, and I know you very secondarily, but yet to my good friend I say, ‘OK, I’ll sponsor her. You will succeed,’” Hipskind said as an example.

“Sometimes you do. Sometimes you don’t. And that’s where I’ve been the least successful.”

One possibility, which might serve to the advantage of the student, could be to require a sponsor to meet with the student throughout his or her college career, Gros Louis said. This would give the student a mentor and possibly cut down on frivolous sponsorships.


Faculty sponsorships can help build a diverse campus by bringing students who contribute to IU in unusual ways, Terry said.

For example, he sees the value in making exceptions for some music students who might not have top grades but demonstrate exceptional artistic abilities. Likewise, Terry said having a unique admissions process for athletes ­– with limits – also makes sense.
But he’s worried that the system may be getting out of hand.

“What I’m more concerned about is the increase in faculty sponsorships who are not athletics and music,” Terry said.

Thompson said he believes athletes and musicians at one time made up the majority of sponsorships. Now, those groups represent fewer than half of the special admissions exceptions, he said, as sponsorships have increased in other areas.

Though athletes and musicians are reviewed by special committees, overall it is the same process.

This year, 32 athletes were admitted through faculty sponsorship, representing about one-fourth of all students who received exceptions, said Bruce Jaffee, faculty athletic representative. The sport with the most sponsorships is football.

Jaffee said the number of sponsored athletes has stayed consistent lately, but coaches are becoming less likely to seek a sponsorship for a student who has a questionable academic record.

“In addition to having tougher admissions standards, I think IU is getting academically tougher to do well,” Jaffee said. “I think both the general population, but also coaches, say, ‘If I get a marginally academic kid out of high school, that person would not make it out of IU or generally would struggle through IU.’”

While admission through faculty sponsorship might seem unfair to students who don’t get one, Thompson said the well-being of the sponsored student is still something to keep in mind.

As the freshman class gets smarter, it could be more difficult to keep up in classes, he said.

“If that’s what the profile looks like, my question would be, ‘Are we doing a disservice to a student who comes in on an exception who might not be able to compete academically?’” Thompson asked.

Thompson and Terry do not advocate eliminating faculty sponsorships altogether.
Gros Louis said every school has some sort of special admissions system.

“You have to have something like this in order to achieve the kind of diverse student body you want,” Terry said.

But it’s important to keep the exceptions in check, Thompson said, and not just because they sometimes bring down average SAT scores and high school GPAs. It’s an issue of fairness and IU’s reputation.

“I’m not quite sure what purpose this special admissions system serves,” Terry said, “other than potentially undercutting our admissions system.”

Like what you're reading? Support independent, award-winning college journalism on this site. Donate here.


Comments powered by Disqus