Lasell College has announced that it is no longer requiring the SAT or ACT for undergraduate admissions. According to FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing, which is critical of standardized testing, Lasell is the 30th college to make such a policy change in the last 12 months, setting a record pace in the push against admissions testing requirements.
New York University will announce today that it will stop considering at all a broad question on the Common Application about applicants' disciplinary and criminal records. The Education Department and many organizations have been pushing colleges to avoid policies that may punish students for incidents they have moved past, or for encounters with a law enforcement system that in some localities is seen as hostile to minority youth. NYU previously announced that it would stop considering answers to the Common Application question (which includes any discipline from ninth grade on) in the first review of applicants and would only consider answers for those who made it past the first review of applicants. Under a new policy, applicants will be asked not about all disciplinary or criminal records they may have, but only about violent incidents.
For example, the criminal question on the Common Application covers any crime. On the NYU application it sends those using the Common Application to apply, students will see a more focused question: "Within the last seven years after the age of 14, have you ever been convicted at trial, or pled guilty to, a criminal offense involving violence, physical force or the threat of physical force, a sexual offense, possession of a weapon, kidnapping, arson, or any offense which caused physical harm to another person?"
The Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success -- a group of dozens of leading colleges and universities -- has released its first application form. Most of the questions are similar to the information requested by most applications. But the release provides the first look at how the coalition is handling questions on gender and disciplinary or criminal records, two topics that have been the subject of much debate of late.
Under gender, the application gives a choice of male or female and then another box, "Gender (optional)," in which applicants can provide more information. Both the Common Application and the Universal College Application in April, in response to many years of pushing by advocates for transgender students, added new ways for applicants to indicate that the male/female binary is not a choice that corresponds with their identity.
The Education Department and others have been urging colleges to rethink whether they need to ask about disciplinary and criminal records of applicants, given concerns that such requests for information may discourage some students from applying and that many minority youth feel treated unfairly by law enforcement officials. The coalition application stresses that people who answer yes to any of the questions will be able to explain the circumstances, and that answering yes will not automatically lead applicants to be rejected. The relevant questions are:
Have you ever been convicted of a crime other than a minor traffic violation?
Are there any criminal charges currently pending against you?
Have you entered a plea of guilty, a plea of no contest, a plea of nolo contendere, an Alford plea to a criminal charge or a plea under a first offender act?
Do you currently have disciplinary charges (nonacademic or academic) pending against you from a high school, college, university or other postsecondary educational institution?
Have you ever been suspended or expelled for any reason from a high school, college, university or other postsecondary educational institution?
Carthage College, in Wisconsin, has dropped its requirement that applicants submit SAT or ACT scores. The college explained the shift this way: "Why test optional? This policy aligns with our admissions philosophy of holistic review and aligns with the college’s strategic plan on access. The best indication of whether a student will be successful at Carthage College is their performance in high school -- the grades they earn and the rigor of their course work."
The option is not available to those applying to study nursing, applicants who have been homeschooled and international students for whom English is not their native language.
The board of the National Association for College Admission Counseling on Monday announced its endorsement of a statement on promoting integrity in standardized testing, proposed by NACAC's advisory committee of people concerned with international issues.
"Recent alarming reports, combined with the cumulative experience of practitioners in the field, have highlighted a growing, significant and immediate challenge: how to curb cheating on exams in the U.S. and abroad when the technological means to cheat have never been more available," says the statement. "Students seamlessly, and oftentimes innocently, share test content within minutes of finishing their exams. Organized cheating rings use social and mobile tools to share that same content in real time. Standardized testing organizations monitor popular websites and attempt to ensure that what is illicitly shared is quickly removed. The effectiveness of these efforts is further undermined by the proliferation of private messaging channels, whether SnapChat, WeChat or platforms yet to come. As an organization that is sympathetic to this problem, NACAC appreciates that this is an overwhelming task."
The statement urges a number of steps to promote testing integrity. The first recommendation: "Recognize that while the reuse of entire standardized test forms or test questions is a longstanding practice, the proliferation of modern communications technology today has rendered it vulnerable to easy exploitation."
Sweet Briar College expects 175 new students when it opens its doors for the fall semester, increasing total enrollment but missing targets for the first recruiting season after the women's liberal arts college nearly closed last summer.
The college in rural Virginia on Monday reported 139 incoming first-year students, 18 transfer and nontraditional students, 11 new graduate students, and seven students returning after transferring to other schools. That's expected to bring total enrollment on campus to more than 325 for the 2016-17 academic year, up from 245 in 2015-16. It also means more students have decided to come to Sweet Briar since early May, when 125 applicants had sent deposits. But officials in Sweet Briar's new administration had higher targets, initially shooting for 250 students before revising their goal to 200. The college said it received a record number of applications, 1,390.
Sweet Briar's board moved to close the college in March 2015, pointing to rising tuition discounting, dropping enrollment and trouble attracting students. Alumnae resisted the move, winning a deal last summer to keep the college open. The college, which had wound down many operations, reopened under new trustees with a new president, Phillip Stone, and new fund-raising goals.
The college has now raised $10.25 million over 10 months, outpacing a $10 million goal, it said. Last year it raised $12 million in three months in order to remain open.
Sweet Briar finished its 2016 fiscal year under budget by $2 million, it said. It did not draw from its endowment.
Describing 2016 as “a rebuilding year,” Stone said in a statement, “We took over a mostly shuttered institution and could not start recruiting a new class until September of 2015, six months later than other institutions. The fact that we will have a student body of this size in such a short time is one more Sweet Briar miracle.”
Sweet Briar had 561 students in 2014-15 before the near closure.
We usually think of college as providing a boost up the class ladder. That is what it did for a generation or more of Americans, particularly from the 1950s through the 1970s. But since around 1980, college has actually calcified class in America.
That’s one upshot of Tamara Draut’s new book, Sleeping Giant: How the New Working Class Will Transform America (Doubleday, 2016). She explains how the central divide between the working class and the middle class now is college. Not that things are entirely rosy for those with bachelor’s degrees, but those without degrees have experienced a more severe pinch, with proportionately shrinking wages, degraded conditions, few job protections and general insecurity.
Moreover, contrary to college standing as an open thoroughfare for Americans wanting to rise, it has become a gated toll road primarily available to those from middle-class and upper-class families. Those who have gone to college beget those who go to college: if your parents didn’t go to college, you are much more likely to work at or near minimum wage. Only about 9 percent of those from the lowest quartile of wealth complete college degrees, whereas about three-quarters from the top quartile do.
A key impediment has been the exponential rise of tuition prices since the 1970s, at several times the rate of inflation, correlated with the reduction of public support, which in turn has brought the steep increase in student debt and student work hours.
This has produced what Draut called in an earlier essay “The Growing College Gap,” in Inequality Matters: The Growing Economic Divide in America and Its Poisonous Consequences. We usually think that we have seen great progress if not solved the problem of racial inequality, but the enrollment gap between white students and black students was about 5 percent in 1970, whereas it had more than doubled, to 11 percent, in 2000. Similarly, Hispanic students have seen the gap widen from 5 to 13 percent. Affirmative action gets headlines, but we have actually gone backward in attaining racial equality in higher education.
One of Draut’s key insights is that the class divide is not just a matter of money but also one of culture. As she remarks, “When once a steelworker and an accountant could live on the same block, drive the same car, vacation at the same place and eat at the same restaurants, over the course of the 1980s, 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s” those from higher classes have little substantive contact with those from the working class except when they ring up their groceries or take care of their elderly relatives.
That has precipitated a public and political blindness to the new working class, even though it constitutes 60 percent of Americans. Rather than a silent majority, it is an invisible majority.
The cultural divide has two daunting consequences. Because those who work in journalism and other news media come from the upper, college-degreed cohort -- as Draut adduces, in 1971 only about half of journalists had B.A.s, whereas 92 percent do now -- they have little direct sense of the working class. Nor is there a strong interest to represent it in the main news organs, like The New York Times or The Washington Post, whose audiences are largely college educated.
In Draut’s analysis, after the 2008 crash, about half of the news focused on the banks, a third on the federal response, a fifth on businesses and only a smattering on working-class people who might have lost jobs or their houses. Rather, the Post ran a feature on a banker getting by on a reduction of her salary -- to $300,000 a year. Hard times indeed.
Similarly, those who work as congressional staffers come almost entirely from college backgrounds. Of high-level staffers, about half “attended private colleges for their undergraduate degree, including 10 percent who went to an Ivy League school.” They are typically the ones who get the internships inside the D.C. beltway, as well as can afford to carry the expenses of internships.
That has effectively shut the working class out of public representation or political power, even though it constitutes a majority. For Draut, the key is to change the narrative, popping what she calls the “class bubble.” One corrective is simply that we are not all middle class: most Americans are working class.
In addition, Sleeping Giant shows that the present working class no longer fits the iconic image of the construction worker in hard hat who had a union to speak for him. Instead, it is largely female, about half Latino and African-American, usually nonunionized, and struggling to make ends meet at or near minimum wage while laboring in home health care, fast food and retail, which have gained the bulk of new jobs.
Since college is a key class marker, it’s easy to blame higher education itself as the problem. But for Draut the problem lies in the policies that have drained equal opportunity from it and segregated it, and in turn she advocates policies to enhance public higher education, notably reducing tuition fees and eliminating student debt. In this, she differs from the diagnosis of John Marsh, who argues in Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality(Monthly Review, 2011), that college has been overemphasized and offers a false solution, so we should pare back college attendance.
Draut herself was a working-class beneficiary of higher education: the daughter of a steelworker, she went to a public university near home in Ohio, which sent her on her way to a job in advertising, then with Planned Parenthood, and since 2001 with Demos, a progressive think tank, where she started as a researcher and is currently a vice president.
Demos was founded in the 1990s as a counterweight to the many conservative think tanks, and it has produced reports such as “The Great Cost Shift,” about the draining of public support for higher education, and “The College Compact,” about enhancing public support. Draut first worked on studies of credit-card and student loan debt, which spurred her earlier exposé, Strapped: Why America’s 20- and 30-Somethings Can’t Get Ahead (Doubleday, 2006).
She learned a lesson from the battle over credit cards. In seeking reform, as she recalled in an interview with me, “there’s a beltway mentality, ‘Well, that’s never going to happen; we’re never going to regulate the credit-card companies.’” But she proudly attended the 2009 signing of the Credit Card Act, which regulates rates and fees and has helped those in debt. As she quipped, “I got the last laugh on that one,” and she sees the same possibility for higher education: “Debt-free college is now a real idea and part of the political debate.”
That’s one salutary reminder we can take from Draut: it might be a long road, but good ideas that seem unrealistic at one moment can win their day. In academic scholarship, we typically focus on conceptual problems, commenting on one and moving onto the next, and in fact we are continually looking for what’s new or next. But in politics, change sometimes seems glacial, and one has to be dogged. It’s useful to keep in mind that massive student debt is only a recent development, arising since the 1980s, and 10 years ago, the idea of abolishing it or enacting free public higher education were considered pie-in-the-sky proposals. But they’re on the agenda now, and we have to keep working to accrue the data, build the narratives and devise policies that aim toward more equality.
Jeffrey J. Williams is a professor of English and of literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University. His most recent book is How to Be an Intellectual: Essays on Criticism, Culture, and the University (Fordham University Press, 2014).