It has been clear for some time that the American college admissions system is fundamentally flawed. Between the Common App’s monopoly over the admissions process and U.S. News & World Report's rankings -- which give institutions points for selectivity and higher test scores -- it has been nearly impossible for individual colleges to change the way they recruit and admit students who are a good fit for their specific programs.
The Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success -- a group of more than 80 higher education institutions that includes the Ivies, Stanford University, top liberal arts colleges and major state universities -- represents bold steps in a new direction. One hopes that the range of colleges and universities included in the coalition will allow each of its members to keep up pressure in three key ways: shifting from tests and transcripts to a more robust, portfolio-based admissions process; ensuring financial-aid transparency; and providing not only admissions advice about the institution itself but also helping the widest group of students in its community to navigate, as they say at the KIPP network of charter schools, “to and through college.”
The shift from a college admissions system that serves colleges to one that serves students and families is a national imperative if we wish to train young people for the jobs they will discover and the lives they will lead in the 21st century -- most of which do not even exist today.
If we want to change fundamentally the things that are broken with the current system, we need to go further, instituting a new framework that improves outcomes for colleges, parents and, most of all, students. We must tackle the tough questions: How can we steer the most students to colleges where they will thrive? How can we make the admissions process both challenging and a level playing field? How can we make financial aid fair and transparent?
I recommend a two-step process similar to medical school admissions. It requires colleges and universities to:
1. Establish a simple and consistent across-the-board threshold. It includes the student’s transcript, standardized test scores, activities résumé, school writing sample and a short personal essay. Students can apply to a limited number of schools -- say, 15 -- for one price. Students who receive free or reduced lunch receive 100 percent fee waivers. Colleges read the folders and decide who is academically qualified. They rank all students likely, possible or no. And they provide information about how much financial aid the student will receive if admitted later.
All financial aid is based on need (in relation to that institution’s ability to provide aid). If a college is “gapping” (admitting a student but not providing sufficient aid), the amount of debt the student will be required to assume is clear to the student and parent. There are no early admissions and no exceptions, not even for athletes.
This step provides a sanity check for students: they must apply to colleges where they are academically qualified, or they’ll end up with nothing. It also makes the first step more helpful for parents, who can see how likely their children are to get admitted and to receive financial aid at different colleges. This first, fact-based round enables colleges to select a smaller group of students to review more intensively and explore who the best candidates are for their particular programs and priorities.
2. Explore in some depth the fit between each student and the institution. Colleges identify those students who have the intellectual, personal and moral characteristics to be good citizens in their communities. And students determine which colleges will nurture their particular intellectual and personal ambitions, their sense of who they want to become in college and in life. Colleges can be innovative here: they might consider assessment centers, as suggested by Adam Grant, professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. (Such activities can be done online or in person, with the assumption that every aspect of this second phase will be paid by the college for all students.) Colleges can also try different types of writing assignments (as at Bard College), videos (like Goucher College), inventions, op-eds, interviews -- whatever they like, and in whatever combination they like, in order to get to know each student better. This should be fun and empowering for students, who should be encouraged to reveal who they think they would become at each college that they are considering.
At the end of this second round, students and colleges rank their preferences, and a computer optimizes the outcomes -- like the internship match in medicine.
This is actually how the core admissions work is done now for many state universities’ selective honors programs: a computer accepts the top tier and rejects the bottom. In a second round, students submit additional essays, videos and other projects, and the college then decides who is admitted to premier programs -- which include financial aid packages as well as smaller, more selective classes.
You could argue that transforming the tangled and misaligned assumptions of the current jury-rigged system into something this clean and simple will be extremely difficult. Indeed, it will take significant collective will to achieve something equitable and empowering for students of all backgrounds. But this two-step process is fair, transparent and fun -- three things that the current system is not and that the coalition’s ambitious opening gambit, by itself, cannot ensure.
Carol Barash is the founder and CEO of Story2, the company that expands writing fluency and self-advocacy through storytelling.
First, ACT asked colleges to be flexible as the testing organization was not meeting deadlines to deliver score reports. Now the College Board is asking colleges to be flexible as it is behind schedule on delivering SAT reports. The College Board has responded to numerous comments on Twitter by saying that it is working to deliver scores as soon as possible. However, with Nov. 1 deadlines looming for some early admissions programs, students are posting angry comments -- especially those who paid for rush delivery. On its official Twitter account, the College Board said rush fees would be refunded when it was unable to deliver the reports on time.
The number of law schools admitting students at serious risk of never passing bar exams is up significantly, according to a new report from Law School Transparency, a group that has been pushing law schools to reveal more about their students' debt and job placement outcomes. The study is built on the relationship between scores on the Law School Admission Test and eventual likelihood that students will pass the bar. While some law schools admit (reasonably, the report says) students with low LSAT scores and high college grades, this is not what is generally happening.
In 2010, the study found, 30 law schools admitted classes consisting of at least 25 percent of students at risk of not passing the bar. In 2014, 74 law schools had such a class profile, and 37 law schools admitted classes where half of the students were at risk of not passing the bar. The report notes that many of these law schools are also institutions where students have substantial student loans, leaving students at risk of high debt while unable to practice law.
The College of Charleston has announced that it will start a "top 10 percent" plan for admissions. Unlike the Texas percentage plan, which is statewide, Charleston's will apply only to seven counties (including the county in which the college is located and those that surround it). Applicants will still be required to submit SAT or ACT scores but they will not be considered in admission, which will be automatic for those in the top 10 percent of public high school classes. Officials hope to send a message to students about preparing for college, and also expect to see gains in minority enrollment.
In an effort to prevent racial bias, university applications in the U.K. will be “name blind” starting in 2017, Prime Minister David Cameron wrote in an op-ed in The Guardian. In his op-ed, Cameron argued that anonymized applications prevent reviewers from being influenced by the ethnic or religious background an applicant’s name might imply.
"Some research has shown that top universities make offers to 55 percent of white applicants, but only to 23 percent of black ones," Cameron wrote. "The reasons are complex, but unconscious bias is clearly a risk. So we have agreed with UCAS [the centralized application processing service] that it will make its applications name blind, too, from 2017."
The College of Idaho and Salem State University are both dropping requirements that all applicants submit SAT or ACT scores. The College of Idaho will ask those who don't submit test scores to answer several short essay questions.
Earlier this past summer, the U.S. Department of Education announced it would eliminate a student’s opportunity to list in rank order the colleges and universities to which he or she had submitted the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Many in higher education, and most involved in college counseling, applauded the decision.
Then, this month, the National Association for College Admissions Counseling amended its ethical guidelines to memorialize the department’s action, and it now discourages colleges from asking applicants to list in rank order the colleges they are considering.
These recent changes will force many of us who work at colleges and universities to more directly ask students about their level of interest in our institution. Because we will no longer be able to rely on our ranked position on the FAFSA, which had very high predictive value related to a student’s prospect for enrolling, we now will have to do the asking. This will be new territory for many of us and for students, but I believe such directness can be good for colleges, admissions offices, families and students.
I suspect this shift in communication may have been unintentional on the parts of both the Education Department and NACAC. I also think their actions were the result of a “parade of horribles” -- what-ifs and speculations -- that undoubtedly will bring focus to other important strategies and tools used by many colleges in the contemporary practice of admissions.
Oft mentioned among the parade of horribles are:
the potential for admissions offices to use (“misuse” is a better term) information, like rank order, to influence admissions and financial aid decisions;
the pressure on students to develop a strategy in developing their list order to make sure to maximize their options;
the potential that first-generation students and those from underserved or underresourced areas will not understand the process.
These sound pretty awful, while the actions of the Department of Education and NACAC, designed to protect students, seem sensible. So why in the world would admissions and enrollment professionals, also presumably interested in serving and recruiting students, engage in such practices?
Let’s start with two premises.
First, there are three types of colleges: superselective institutions that have the luxury of “crafting a class,” open-access colleges that accept everyone who applies and colleges that work tirelessly all year just to make each class.
Second, one of the primary responsibilities of today’s enrollment manager or senior admissions leader is to predict who will enroll.
While my institution may be positioned between the superselective and the just-make-the-class types, my sympathies are more closely aligned with the latter, given the realities of demographic shifts, changes in ability and willingness of students and their families to pay, and the affordability advocates who tout cutbacks to areas such as marketing, administration and recruitment.
At Augustana College, where I work in admissions, one of my primary responsibilities is to offer the president and the Board of Trustees a data-informed prediction about who will enroll each year. This prediction sets in motion a budget and planning process that impacts the quality of education we offer our students and the livelihoods of the people who serve our students. Therefore, I want to have as many resources as possible to help inform that prediction.
We don’t ask students to rank order the institutions to which they’ve applied, but we do ask admitted students whether Augustana ranks first or in the top three or top five choices. We’ve done this for years, postadmission, and have found it to be very helpful in prioritizing our outreach to students and making the best use of our time as admissions professionals. We’ve used this information along with FAFSA position to help predict who will show up on our campus in the fall.
So, let me offer a few reasons -- not in any rank order -- why an admissions office might want to have a good idea about our relative standing with students in an effort to be efficient and make credible predictions.
Limited, constrained human resources. For most college admissions offices, especially at those institutions that need to work very hard to make the class, human resources must be deployed carefully, thoughtfully and with the greatest good in mind. Given the size of applicant pools, it is usually impossible to develop relationships with everyone who applies. Many admissions offices try to learn where to focus their efforts to make the most meaningful connections. Information like the ranking of colleges, and many other things that demonstrate students’ interests, can help an admissions counselor prioritize work and concentrate on the students most likely to enroll. At institutions that need 20 to 25 percent of our admitted students to enroll, being able to connect with those most likely to choose our college is quite useful.
The need to work smarter. A constant chorus on college campuses today is to “work smarter, not harder.” Data equip an admissions office to do that. I am aware of very few admissions offices that are increasing staff sizes, which means we are expected to work smarter every year in an environment of heavier workloads and shrinking resources. Lacking human resources, we need data, tools and processes that streamline and focus attention and allow us to be smart in our work.
Vital volunteer engagement. When it takes a village to make the class, ensuring that your village of volunteers has meaningful engagements with prospective students is crucial to long-term recruitment and admissions success. Most admissions offices rely on campus partners to supplement the recruitment effort and ultimately be effective. If there’s one thing I know about volunteers, it is that one bad experience can turn an enthusiastic volunteer away forever. Many admissions offices need to do an internal sort to make sure volunteers have good experiences. Data that inform an internal sort are important to maintaining valuable relationships with our volunteers, too.
Efficiency and access. Most important, good use of time means we can focus more on first-generation or underresourced students and families. One of the reasons we must prioritize is so we can spend more hours on creating access -- working with populations who are not as familiar with the college search process or our type of college. Understanding that one student is clear about choosing your college can free you up to counsel others who need more information to make a comfortable and informed decision.
Most people would agree this list does not in any way sound related to a “parade of horribles.” In the end, it may just come down to the fact that communication patterns and predictions keep changing. Perhaps in a couple of years, students, becoming more savvy by the minute, will decide once they’re admitted to tell each college or university that it is number one on their list -- thus hoping to get more attention. To get to the real truth, we will again have to change our approach to how we ask them.
Because, ultimately, we should do all we can to communicate honestly and in depth with our accepted students, and that begins with directness and an effort to truly know what they are thinking. It’s the kind of communication that should precede any commitment of this magnitude.
W. Kent Barnds is vice president of enrollment, communications and planning at Augustana College.
With ACT scores delayed beyond some early action application deadlines, some colleges are announcing that they will allow applicants to send screenshots of the portion of ACT scores that are available. ACT has told test takers that the writing scoring is delayed but other scores are available, unofficially, on the ACT website. Some colleges are saying they will accept these scores for consideration. Among them are Loyola Marymount University and the University of Chicago (links are to their announcements).
Students and colleges are being told by ACT that test scores from September are delayed because of high volume of test takers and because of longer scoring time for a new writing test. Students and colleges are frustrated and some fear missing some early decision deadlines.
Steve Kappler, vice president of brand experience for ACT, wrote to members of the National Association for College Admission Counseling to explain the situation, but his answer has not satisfied many ACT test takers or colleges.
"We understand that some students may be facing important application deadlines. Students who took the ACT with writing may view their multiple-choice scores -- their ACT composite score, subject test scores (English, mathematics, reading and science), and subscores -- on the ACT student website. Official score reports, however, cannot be sent to students, high schools or colleges until the writing test scoring is complete," he wrote.
"Because of the unique nature of this situation, ACT urges colleges to consider accepting screenshots of the student’s September multiple-choice scores from their official ACT student account as a provisional measure, if application deadlines are nearing, until official scores are sent. We will encourage students facing deadlines to send a copy of the email they receive from ACT, along with a screenshot of their ACT multiple-choice test scores, to any applicable colleges to verify that they are among the students impacted by this situation."