Holistic admissions: How this can help when assessing potential dental professionals

Dental education has shifted to a more comprehensive assessment of who is “qualified” for a career in the dental professions and what we want our student bodies to be. Holistic admissions take into account people’s background, experiences, personal attributes, and other characteristics.

Dec 17th, 2014
Holistic Dental School Admissions

The recent and historical debates over race-conscious admissions are important contributors to our national conversations about fairness, the future of higher education, and in the dental field, the quality of health care. But they don’t quite go far enough.

In dental education, we have shifted to a more comprehensive assessment of who is “qualified” for a career in the dental professions and what we want our student bodies to be. As the name suggests, holistic admissions seek to do just that – assess people fully and determine what they have to offer as they go through the rigors of dental education and enter into practice. Holistic admissions take into account people’s background, experiences, personal attributes, and other characteristics, and then marries these with the person’s quantitative measures in a balanced way.

This may sound like a logical approach to building a student body, but when I was in dental school and for decades after, it was all about the numbers. Admissions committees looked at DAT scores and GPAs. Allied programs reviewed high school GPAs, SATs, and/or ACTs. I’ve often wondered about the purpose of having admissions committees in higher education if all they consider is who is at the top of the test-taking heap. A computer can figure that out.

Today we know that the landscape is changing, at least in the health professions, and most notably in academic dentistry. According to a September 2014 report on these types of admissions practices, of all of the health professions surveyed, academic dentistry leads the pack with 93% of reporting schools actively using holistic admissions. Medicine and nursing are also doing their part.

Why are we ahead of the curve? There are two reasons – we started 10 years ago, and we were deliberate about helping dental and allied dental schools become comfortable with the approach so that could actually do it. It’s important to note that this didn’t happen overnight; we were catalyzed by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in 2004 to address the lack of diversity in the health-care workforce, particularly in the dental professions. Their motivation, and the motivation of the American Dental Education Association (ADEA), was ultimately to meet the health care needs of a changing society, and holistic admissions at its core is a means to that end.

We now know that the diversity of the health-care workforce itself can either be a hindrance or a pathway to better health. The evidence is clear that more diverse practitioners lead to greater access and higher patient satisfaction. We always knew developing more diverse dental health professions was the right thing to do for patient care, but until we had methods and tools it couldn’t become part of the fabric of academic dentistry.

Our start came through grants that enabled dental and allied dental health schools to put into operation what had been just a philosophy. ADEA has been providing trainings and other resources to our members ever since, and the numbers indicate that this is becoming the norm rather than the exception.

The numbers also prove that the “quality” argument against more comprehensive admissions practices doesn’t hold water. A full 100% of reporting schools in the 2014 study who practice holistic admissions and evaluated outcomes reported graduation rates that were unchanged or increased. In addition, 84% of these schools reported that the success rates for required licensing exams remained the same or were higher. I suspect that detractors have limited time to hold back further progress.

How will these changing trends affect future generations of dental health professionals? First, while they are still in the dental education system, students will have the opportunity to interact with and learn from individuals who will bring different ideas and perspectives to the table. With all of the data out there about diverse teams functioning much more productively and effectively, we can hardly dismiss this benefit.

Second, and perhaps more important, is that this caring profession will better meet its core mission through oral health care of reducing pain and preventing disease and death. We have a crisis in access to oral health care in this country, and if we keep doing the same things we’ve always done, we’ll never solve it. As a society, we need to grow health professionals who bring varied backgrounds and goals and who will work in areas of high need, as well as in more traditional settings. We know that by changing the mix of who enters the halls of academic dentistry, we will broaden the mix of who receives dental care.

There’s a business case for holistic admissions, a public health case for it, and a leadership case for it. Health care has its share of difficulties, but in this instance, it’s good to know that we can turn good intentions into actual results.

Rick Valachovic, DMD, MPH, is president and CEO of the American Dental Education Association(ADEA).

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