Beyond the SAT: Purdue I-O psychology alumnus explored alternatives for college admission process

Neal Schmitt head shot

Neal Schmitt

Written by: Tim Brouk,

As the enrollment cliff inches ever closer, admissions offices at universities nationwide are having to get creative, focused and competitive to attract potential students.

Low birthrates from 2008-09 are expected to negatively impact university enrollment as early as 2025, experts agree. In 2021, while COVID-19 still created havoc everywhere, college enrollment dropped by almost 5% nationwide. In Indiana, Purdue University and Indiana University were the only four-year institutions that increased enrollments. Every other school saw enrollment drop.

While admissions directors prepare and work overtime to meet their programs’ needs, Neal Schmitt, a Purdue Psychological Sciences alumnus (MS ‘69, PhD ‘72) and Michigan State University industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology distinguished professor emeritus, remembers a time when he explored admissions processes that might serve to complement SAT or ACT scores.

Through extensive research, Schmitt and his colleagues created a model based on a potential student’s overall high school and life experiences. Good grades were important, but so were being a student-athlete, a club president or an art contest winner. Schmitt called these “biographical data.” He also developed “situational judgment measures.” Student participants were put into hypothetical situations they might encounter in their classrooms or dorms — what to do if they saw someone else cheating, for example — and had to pick solutions to those situations.

“The College Board was looking for alternative measures, and that’s where we spent three or four years of research trying to develop (measures) for them,” said Schmitt, who also served as a department chairman, interim college dean and associate provost at Michigan State. “We were looking for something besides the SAT to recognize student talent.”

While the model did not replace the SATs in the long run, the research was one of the first to think beyond testing for quality young scholars to enhance academic programs as well as those all-important enrollment numbers.

Now residing in Boston, Schmitt will travel back to West Lafayette to accept a distinguished alumni award from the Purdue College of Health and Human Sciences for his long career in industrial-organizational psychology research; his appointments as editor for industry academic journals; and his many awards, including the James McKeen Cattell Fellow Award from the Association for Psychological Science and the Award for Distinguished Service to Psychological Science from the American Psychological Association.

During retirement, Schmitt taught some classes for Boston College, and he still keeps tabs on the latest in university admissions and the methods they use to keep enrollment up despite recent and yet-to-come challenges.

How did you develop the work that looked beyond standardized testing for incoming college students?

At that time, I was working and co-authoring mostly with graduate students. They got to be a very big proponent of these alternative measures. We worked with undergraduates in developing the measures. We didn’t just derive these situations from our experience. We interviewed students to come up with the situations; we interviewed students to come up with alternative solutions to those situations; and we also used students to develop a scoring rubric for the items. They were measures very much derived from student experiences. These measures were also validated against subsequent grade point average, retention and a measure we called citizenship behavior.

What is your take on today’s undergraduate student?

I would say they are more independent. They’re more used to working by themselves — maybe not even in a classroom — than ever before. They’re quite comfortable with the need to act proactively and independently in their education.  

How is the psychology field doing today?

There’s a lot of emphasis on mental health — everything from policing to schools to entertainment. The push for additional personnel in those areas means it’s a very good job market. The emphasis on mental health and the realization that it’s extremely important in all kinds of occupations is just going to make the job market much, much better for healthcare professionals. The same is true for industrial-organizational psychologists whose services to organizations are in increased demand.

Have you worked with other organizations?

Yes, I have worked with a wide variety of public and private organizations in developing and validating personnel selection procedures. Some of these include the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the FBI, the states of Virginia and Alabama, Ford Motor Company, General Motors, AT&T, and others.

What are some memories during your time at Purdue?

I worked like mad to finish my comprehensive exams before I had to spend two years in the (U.S.) Army as a draftee. When I came back, I had to do my dissertation. It was a little different with that external pressure (of military service). My Purdue career was split by two years away from graduate school. I got married during that time too. It was busy (laughs). 

My wife (Kara Schmitt) is an industrial-organizational psychologist also. She got her degree the same time I did at Purdue, and she has been a constant source of advice and tremendous support. We met in class and had the same professors. She was one of the first women in this field and spent her career working in licensure for the state of Michigan and subsequently as a consultant.

How did your degrees from Purdue help you in your career?

My degrees provided me with the intellectual background and skills required to perform my job during my early career. It also impressed on me the need to always seek new knowledge. It also provided me with a network of alumni with whom I consulted about many career issues. These people provided various career opportunities in professional organizations.

If you could give our current students your best advice about making the most of their time at Purdue, what would you say?

Study hard, but take advantage of as many extracurricular activities as you can — even some you might not think you would enjoy. Go out of your way to make as many friends of diverse backgrounds as possible. Don’t be afraid to change majors if you become dissatisfied with your current course of study or find something you enjoy much more. Please be sure you explore the alternatives before you switch — talk to faculty, advisors and fellow students.