When Jessica Van Parys graduates in May, her applications to graduate schools will list three degrees from UGA — AB and MA in economics, BS in political science — and she also found time to earn a minor in math, which has come in handy in the academic research career she has already begun as an undergraduate.
Here's what Terry economics professor David Mustard said about Van Parys in a Marshall Scholarship recommendation letter he wrote for her:
"Her class...was the best of nine Law and Economics classes I have taught. Jessica finished in a tight cluster of six people at the top of the 38-person class. This group also included one Marshall Scholar who is at the London School of Economics, two students at Harvard Law School, one student at the University of Chicago Law School, and a Fulbright Fellowship recipient who is now at Duke University."
Van Parys, who was a finalist for the Marshall Scholarship, credits UGA's Center for Undergraduate Research with heightening her interest in doing academic research — and Mustard for coming up with the ideal CURO project for her.
"Chris Cornwell and I had discussed doing research on the impact of the new writing portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test, which was introduced in 2006," says Mustard. "I knew the SAT data was available, the study was tractable and well-defined, and it seemed like the perfect project for Jessica to collaborate on with Chris and me."
Van Parys was entrusted with crunching the data on 4,300 freshman who had taken the new writing portion of the SAT prior to enrolling at UGA for fall semester 2006.
"The data was very raw and I had to perform a number of operations in Excel and Stata, such as converting alpha numeric data to code," says Van Parys, who had to clean the data, define the sample, merge the information from three UGA departments —registrar, admissions, financial aid — and then generate the research paper, using regression analysis. It was a daunting task, particularly for an undergraduate.
"Chris and I worked very closely with her," says Mustard. "She wrote the initial draft of the research paper, we recommended a couple revisions, and Jessica ended up winning an award for the best CURO paper of the year in the social science category."
Van Parys also received a second-place award from the UGA Library in campus-wide competition for the best undergraduate research paper of the year. She then took the paper global with a presentation at an international CURO symposium in Costa Rica, followed by a presentation at the American Education Finance Association conference in Denver. The paper is currently being considered for publication at the Economics of Education Review.
Unlike a recent study published by The College Board, which administers the SAT, the Terry research team took into consideration several key factors that strongly influence success in college — including the level of parental education and the quality of the high school the student attended. Though they say it is still too early to eliminate any segment of the test, the researchers found the writing portion to be a much better predictor of academic success than either the verbal or math portions.
"If you look at our findings for the writing portion of the SAT — that for each 100-point increase in the writing score there was a .07 increase in a student's GPA — you can see that, for example, a 300-point increase in the writing score could mean the difference between a 3.79 GPA and a perfect 4.0. That's pretty significant," says Van Parys.
The SAT verbal (now known as the critical-reading section) was also a significant predictor of collegiate success, but not nearly as powerful as the writing section. With each 100-point increase on the SATV, students earned freshman GPAs that were .03 points higher, less than one half the .07 increase for the SATW.
Van Parys thinks the Terry study — and others like it that are sure to follow at other institutions across the country — have the potential to change the way college admissions officers look at prospective students in the future.
As for her own future, Van Parys isn't sure what career path she'll follow — but she expects to be involved in setting or remaking public policy.
"Human behavior is fascinating to me," she says. "How people make choices with regard to their education and health — and what repercussions those choices make in the labor market — that's my passion!"