Ethical College Admissions: Are We Devo?

Every now and then, colleges make the application process easier for students, but like one-hit wonder musical groups, they don't build on their momentum, writes Jim Jump.

November 5, 2018

I was in a discussion recently about musical one-hit wonders. The one-hit wonder is a fascinating concept, raising important questions. What combination of talent, luck and a catchy refrain allows a singer or band to catch a cultural wave and produce an unlikely hit? What happens to one-hit wonders after they leave the spotlight? And which is worse, being a one-hit wonder or having no hits as all?

Our cultural landscape is pockmarked with hits that never produced sequels. Tommy Tutone got only wrong numbers after “867-5309.” Michael Sembello’s “Maniac” came from the soundtrack of Flashdance, a movie that would have been far more interesting if it had been about a ballet dancer who dreamed of becoming a welder instead of the other way around. Can we calculate the psychic damage to baseball fans exposed to constant ballpark renditions of the “Macarena” and “Who Let the Dogs Out?”

According to some metrics, the Grateful Dead is a one-hit wonder, with “Touch of Grey” its only song to make the charts, but true one-hit wonders aren’t inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And Tony Burrows is the answer to the trivia question “Who was the lead vocalist on five different one-hit wonders from five different groups?”

Then there was Devo. Devo was the musical equivalent of the student about whom you would write in a recommendation letter, “I would place him in a class by himself,” leaving it to the reader to figure out if that is figurative or literal, high praise or a veiled warning. What exactly was Devo -- novelty act, precursor to New Wave, cultural deconstructionists or a bunch of guys who liked wearing red Ziggurat hats and yellow suits?

The band’s name is short for "devolution," the opposite of evolution. If evolution suggests slow and steady progress, devolution represents a return to a state of existence that’s worse. And while I fully recognize that I and many of my colleagues may be suffering from PNTSD --- post-Nov. 1 traumatic stress disorder -- I feel compelled to ask the question: Are we Devo? Is college admission devolving?

There has certainly been a lot of angst in recent weeks among school counselors and independent educational consultants, much of it caused by and directed at the Coalition Application. That application platform is certainly clunky and counterintuitive, and many of us are dealing with its widespread use for the first time, but the reality is that the Coalition App is not going away. For all its hype about access and equity, the Coalition came about in response to the massive technical glitches several years ago with the Common App. I talked last week with a respected dean of admission who has been intimately involved with both applications, and he made the point that institutions can’t afford to be overly reliant on just one application platform today.

I would argue that the Coalition App is symptom rather than cause. The larger trend involves colleges moving away from a shared commitment to make the college application process easy for students to navigate, one of the original rationales for the Common Application. The Common App was the beginning of a movement to simplify the process of applying to college by having common questions and essays for students to complete rather than every college’s application being different.

Even with the addition of the Coalition App, that has largely continued. No matter which application platform a student is using, the essay prompts and application questions are generally similar.

It is on the back end that the process is devolving. More than I can ever remember, this fall has featured an increasing number of institutions doing their own thing with regard to how transcripts, test scores and recommendations are to be submitted. I have a hard time remembering the subtle differences, and it is no wonder that my students are confused. I can only imagine how confusing it is for students who don’t have access to good college counseling.

The most interesting development is the increase in the number of places allowing students to self-report grades and test scores. The University of California system has long had students self-report grades, but I am seeing other public universities move in that direction, with a transcript required only after the student enrolls.

The problem is that there is no consistency in how colleges want grades self-reported. Some want the student to upload a transcript, others want the student to enter his or her academic record on the application itself, and others want the grades entered on the college website. Why can’t we find a common way to self-report grades? For counselors the downside of self-reported grades is that we may not know that a student has applied at certain places. The only downside to self-reported scores is that it may jeopardize revenue streams for both the College Board and ACT.

Submission of recommendations is a second issue. In the past my office wrote a recommendation letter for every student at the time of his or her first application and then included it with every transcript. But a number of large public universities don’t want any recommendations, including some that claim to use a holistic admissions process.

There are also colleges that only allow one recommendation that must be submitted in a particular way. Last week one of my students applied early action and we tried to submit my recommendation, only to find out that the student had listed a teacher as the recommender. Once the student changed the recommender to me, I received notice that I had to submit through College Net, and the rec could only be 500 words. Readers of this column know brevity is hard for me.

My biggest frustration is how hard it is to find basic information about application requirements on many college websites. An admissions page on a college website has two competing functions, marketing and information. In the quest to design a site that’s graphically appealing to today’s students, information about admission deadlines and application requirements (test scores, recommendations) is impossible to find at many institutions. Speaking of deadlines, don’t get me started on places that have a “received by” deadline.

There is certainly a debate to be had about how hard or how easy applying to college should be. In truth, that application should be a Goldilocks process, not too easy and not too hard -- just right. But colleges need to think about user experience as they design their processes. Are the directions clear, and is the process easy and rational? Does the application process serve institutional self-interest or the public interest?

In the meantime, those of us on the front lines can soothe our frustrations by listening to Devo’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”


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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