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The University of Utah is revising its admissions policy for some older students in the wake of a civil-rights complaint filed by a learning-disabled applicant who was denied admission because he read and wrote at only a fourth-grade level.

A temporary policy, adopted last month while a permanent one is being drafted, spells out in detail the academic benchmarks that those older than 25 who have never been to college must meet for admission. But officials stressed there is plenty of flexibility to admit even those who look bad on paper, as long as they demonstrate they can succeed.

The policy revision affects only applicants who graduated from high school seven or more years before admission and have never been enrolled at a regionally accredited college, a narrow definition that covers fewer than 100 applicants each fall. But the overhaul illustrates how tricky it is for selective universities to assess applicants who haven't been inside a classroom in several years.

"We want to make sure we take life experiences, military service, work experience, those types of things, into consideration," said Mary Parker, the U.'s vice president for enrollment management. "This incident has afforded us the opportunity to look at these individuals more holistically."

Older students are a growing presence on Utah campuses as people return to school to build credentials in a constricted and dynamic job market, or seek new opportunities after military service. But selective schools, and their admissions processes, tend to be geared toward undergraduates who are fresh out of high school or transferring directly from another college.

ACT and SAT exams are designed to measure college readiness in 17-year-olds, so it's not fair to use the score of a 26-year-old as the basis for an admission decision, Parker said. Older students often have life skills that can help them succeed in college, but are not reflected in GPAs and test scores, or even past college performance. Just ask Victoria Billings, a 34-year-old student who bombed her freshman year right out of high school, but now is about to graduate from the U. with a 4.0 GPA and degrees in environmental studies and political science.

"The research says nontraditional student have far superior grades than our 19-year-old counterparts; it's a function of maturity as well as focus. When you are going to college at 30 it's a huge priority," said Billings, who handles outreach for nontraditional students on campus.

Billings was admitted to the U. as a transfer student more than a decade after dropping out of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Like many other older students, she did not fall under the recently rewritten U. policy because of her previous college stint. Of the thousands of applications the U. received for admission last fall, only 65 fell under the policy, according to Parker. Of those, 30 were admitted.

Feds step in • Problems with the U.'s nontraditional admissions policy surfaced two years ago with the application of an out-of-state man, according to U. lawyer Robert Payne. During the unidentified man's dealings with U. officials, he divulged that his reading skills were poor and his admission was denied.

He filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR), which determined the U. had discriminated against the student on the basis of his learning disability. U. officials dispute the finding, but agreed to admit him. "Our concern was that he was academically unprepared and he would not have survived here," Payne said.

Ordinarily, universities have broad latitude to make admission decisions, according to Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

"We should realistically concede there are kinds of learning disabilities that make enrollment problematic. It's not just a greedy institution behaving badly," he said. "Students are taking out a lot of loans to go to college. You might not be doing someone a favor enrolling students who won't graduate."

The OCR findings enable the student to sue the U. for alleged civil-rights violations, but he has not done so, according to Payne. Nor has he enrolled.

A resolution reached with the OCR last year required the U. to revise its admissions policies to "reflect legitimate criteria for student qualifications that do not discriminate on the basis of disability." The agreement also requires the U. to train its personnel in the policies and submit those training materials for OCR approval.

The new policy requires such students to show they have completed four years of English, two years of math beyond algebra, three years of science, two years of a foreign language, one year of history, plus another two years of the students' choice in these core areas. These courses can be completed with GPAs as low as 2.0, as long as the cumulative GPA is at least 2.6. Those who can't meet these criteria may submit ACT or SAT results to demonstrate "an academic foundation and preparedness for university course work," but without specifying minimum scores.

A nontraditional applicant who is denied admission is entitled to a personal interview with an admissions officer and an appeals process through the U.'s Credits and Admissions Committee.