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February 22, 2001

Increasing standards can spell trouble for some Pitt employees, dependents

Scholastic Aptitude Test scores and high school class rankings among Pitt freshmen and transfer students have been rising for the last several years.

That's good news for most of the University community. But some faculty and staff are discovering that Pitt recruiting victories have a dark side: An apparently growing number of University employees — and their spouses and dependent children — are being turned away from admission to the Pittsburgh campus.

"We don't know the number of people who are affected, but it seems to be increasing," said Suzanne McColloch, Pitt assistant director of Admissions and Financial Aid.

McColloch said she's meeting more employees these days who are disappointed to find that they, their spouses or their children don't meet Pitt admissions standards. "These are people who, seven or eight years ago, could have counted on coming to the Pittsburgh campus. It's a very tough thing," she said — especially for staff who have worked for years at Pitt, often for lower salaries than they could have earned elsewhere, in the hope that their tuition benefits would finance their children's educations here.

Among those employees is Joyce McDonald, who quit her job at Penn State to become an administrative secretary at Pitt's Center for Philosophy of Science.

McDonald said she wasn't attracted to Pitt by a bigger salary, but because of the University's comparatively generous tuition benefits.

Penn State pays a maximum of 75 percent of tuition for its employees, their spouses and dependent children to take classes at PSU.

Pitt pays full tuition (for a maximum of 12 terms) for employees' dependent children pursuing their first baccalaureate degrees here. The University also pays 90 to 97 percent of undergraduate and graduate tuition (for a maximum of six, eight and even 11 credits per term, depending on the type of credits taken) for full-time employees hired after Sept. 1, 1994, and their spouses. Full-time employees hired before September 1994 pay $5 per credit. Many part-time staff and faculty also qualify for tuition benefits.

Details on staff education benefits are available on-line at: <>

Faculty education benefits information is available at: <> McDonald's benefits paid for her daughter's Pitt undergraduate studies. But McDonald doubts that she can repeat the process for her son, a senior at McKeesport High School.

"He's not as academically oriented as his sister, and with the higher admissions standards at Pitt these days, we're concerned," McDonald said. "We're trying [to get him admitted to] the Greensburg campus. We're not even trying for Oakland."

Increasingly, Pitt recruiters are pitching the University's four regional campuses — Bradford, Greensburg, Johnstown and Titusville — as alternatives for students who don't qualify for admission to the Pittsburgh campus. Admissions standards vary among the four regionals, but tend to be less demanding than at the Pittsburgh campus.

"For students for whom Oakland is not an option, at least not initially, we try very hard to make the rest of the Pitt system available," said Betsy Porter, director of Admissions and Financial Aid.

Last year, the University turned away 3,369 applicants from admission to the Pittsburgh campus, but only 379 of those students were rejected outright for the Pitt system, Porter said. The remaining students were urged to consider one or more of Pitt's regionals, and their applications were forwarded to admissions officers at those campuses.

Porter said she and her staff visit nearly 1,000 high schools in Pennsylvania annually, updating guidance counselors and students on Pitt admission standards. "We also host a huge number of activities for prospective students and their families on Saturdays during the summer, where we address these [admissions] issues," Porter said.

Despite these efforts and news reports about Pitt's growing selectivity, many western Pennsylvania high school seniors still assume that admission to the Pittsburgh campus is their birthright, said Porter.

"We've been raising the bar for freshman applications with each successive year, but many people continue to take the University of Pittsburgh for granted," she said.

Just as Pitt is getting choosier in accepting freshmen, it is also becoming more selective about students who transfer to the Pittsburgh campus from the regional campuses or from other colleges and universities.

"It used to be that a student could transfer to the Pittsburgh campus with 15 credits and a 2.5 GPA. No more. Now you need to have earned 48 credits and a 2.75 [grade point average] in order to transfer here," Porter said.

The new standards, approved last year by the offices of the Provost and the College of Arts and Sciences dean, came in response to last year's flood of applications and a Pitt analysis showing that transfer students who barely met the old 15 credits/2.5 GPA requirement tended to struggle academically here.

Rich Colwell, president of Pitt's Staff Association Council, said SAC is concerned about staff employees (and their children and spouses) being frozen out of admission to the Pittsburgh campus because of rising academic standards.

SAC officers have discussed the issue with Provost James Maher and Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Jack Daniel. Colwell said the next SAC Tracks newsletter will feature an update on the issue, but he refused to elaborate.

Daniel said Pitt won't change its admissions policy to give preference to staff. "All that's happening is, I drafted a letter for publication in the staff newsletter, spelling out the existing [education benefits] policy and appeals procedures," Daniel said. "There's nothing new or special that's being done for anybody."

— Bruce Steele

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