Ethical College Admissions: Did ‘Turning the Tide’ Make a Difference?

Two years after a report called for major changes in college admissions, Jim Jump is looking for evidence that it made a difference.

October 9, 2017
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Is the tide turning? If so, is it coming in or going out?

Back during the summer, an “Ethical College Admissions” reader contacted me wondering about my thoughts on the “Turning the Tide” report and movement.

“Turning the Tide,” for those who may be unaware, is an outgrowth of the Making Caring Common project sponsored by the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University. Making Caring Common seeks to promote the development of children “who are caring, responsible to their communities and committed to justice.”

“Turning the Tide” seeks to instill those values through the college admissions process. In its original report, published nearly two years ago, it identified three goals for how admission to college is practiced:

  • Developing greater concern for others and the common good among high school students.
  • Increasing equity and access for economically disadvantaged students.
  • Reducing excessive achievement pressure.

Those goals are certainly laudable and hard to argue against. According to the Making Caring Common website, more than 175 college admission offices, “including all the Ivy League colleges,” have signed on to the effort, and the focus during the coming year is getting similar endorsement from high schools.

But has “Turning the Tide” made any inroads in trying to change the culture of college admission? That was the question my reader posed. Has “Turning the Tide” changed college admissions in any meaningful way, or are “big-name schools” (the term used by my reader) getting positive media coverage for their support of the project but giving lip service to its ideals and recommendations?

Last week I attended a counselor breakfast sponsored by five prestigious universities, two of them Ivies, that do group travel together each fall. I have been to that event numerous times, including on Sept. 11, 2001, when I learned about the attack on the Twin Towers upon leaving the breakfast. I must be getting jaded, because the slide presentations done by each participating college seemed remarkably similar, with the only clear difference being the cities where the institutions are located.

During the Q and A session, one of the admission reps mentioned “Turning the Tide” just as I was about to ask whether and how the report had changed what they ask for and how they review applications. The answer was interesting. One of the reps, who works at an institution where the Graduate School of Education is the driving force behind the movement, said that the report hadn’t changed anything because all of the colleges were already doing holistic admission.

I found that answer disappointing. If “Turning the Tide” is nothing more than an endorsement of holistic admission, or if the colleges that sign on in support interpret it that way, then it will fail to turn the tide and may need to make caring common among admission officers as well as students. Reading applications holistically is necessary to achieve the goals laid out in the report, but holistic admission is not sufficient to achieve them.

That raises some larger questions. “Turning the Tide” was founded on an assumption that colleges have the ability to influence student behavior by the messages they send through the application process. But is that the case?

If colleges require essays that focus on ethical behavior or service to others, will that lead students to change their behavior in response? Part of me says yes, that high school students are, in one form or another, strategic thinkers who want to know what the rules are and what the right answer is. But do we want students who truly care about the common good or students who know how to act like they care about the common good?

Does that matter? At a session in Boston at the annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, Richard Weissbourd, the Harvard psychologist who has become the face of the “Turning the Tide” movement, responded to a question about whether kids would “game the system” by wondering if gaming could be positive.

That raises an enduring ethical question about the importance of intention. If I extend kindness to others or perform community service to impress colleges, doesn’t the benefit to society come no matter my motivation? That’s the position a pragmatist like William James (whose house in Cambridge I did a pilgrimage to while in Boston) would take. As much as I admire James, I disagree.

The related question is how important “Turning the Tide” values are compared with other priorities pursued by colleges in the admissions process. How important is identifying and enrolling students with concern for others compared with the desire for increased prestige, too often measured by selectivity and test scores?

The note on the Making Caring Common website that the colleges endorsing “Turning the Tide” include all the Ivies would suggest that the movement hasn’t broken free from the powerful gravitational pull of prestige.

Are students who care a form of diversity or a plus factor only after they make the cut for grades and test scores? Is the composition of any college’s freshman class different because of “Turning the Tide”?

Last week a colleague talked to a young admission officer at a prestigious university whose VP for enrollment had talked last spring about looking for intellectual engagement in different ways. The admission officer knew nothing about it, and as a first reader is still looking for the same qualities as in previous years.

So how is college admissions different due to “Turning the Tide”? It is unrealistic to expect wholesale changes in such a short time, and in response to an “Ethical College Admissions” inquiry Weissbourd admitted that the greatest impact thus far is increased awareness. “Turning the Tide” is helping drive a conversation among families about the importance of caring about something beyond admission to college, and among professionals about the role that colleges and college admission should play in helping develop young people who care about others. “The question for admissions offices now is more often ‘What are you doing?’ and less often ‘Are you doing anything?’” he writes.

The “Turning the Tide” movement has enabled some different essay questions focused on example of caring and service, but the most tangible change is that several colleges are asking students to list fewer activities, sending the message that quality of commitment is more important than quantity of commitment. “Turning the Tide” has also received a three-year grant to develop better assessments of resilience, grit and ethical character. That would be a tremendous contribution to college admission.

“Turning the Tide” is one of several new initiatives arising out of a collective sense that college admission as we know it is broken in some way. I hope it will succeed in promoting discussion, but I’m less concerned with how many signatories they amass than with how many colleges think differently about how and whom they admit.


Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher’s since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women’s basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.


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