A Question of Character

Robert Massa explains a new attempt to define character in the admissions process.

November 4, 2019
 
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In these disruptive times for education, when the integrity of the college admission process is being questioned by the media in their reporting and by parents and students in their application behavior, members of the Character Collaborative think it critical that character attributes in our applicants, aligned with institutional mission, be signaled as important in the college/school selection process and that admission deans develop tools that would allow a consistent assessment of character as one factor in the admission process.

By “character,” we do not mean “personality,” as was discussed in the recent court case challenging Harvard University’s treatment of Asian American applicants. Rather, in addition to ethically based character attributes such as empathy, honesty, humility, open-mindedness and unselfishness, we look at performance-based character elements such as resilience, grit, teamwork and taking responsibility. These are not generally correlated with socioeconomic status, race or ethnicity, and we would expect that considering character attributes as one factor in admission would increase campus diversity. We realize, of course, that all schools and colleges can not and will not want to measure all potential character attributes, but rather will select several that are most important to their institutions and that align with their mission.

Created in 2016 from ideas generated in an article by David Holmes in the spring 2015 issue of The Journal of College Admission, the Character Collaborative began as the Institute on Character in Admission and held its first meeting at the fall National Association for College Admission Counseling conference in Columbus, Ohio. Holmes, the retired head of school at Suffield Academy and Sun Valley Community School, recruited me to help him organize the meeting and invite college and school enrollment professionals along with counselors, researchers and professional associations to join the meeting. Over 60 educators attended and spoke about how they factored in attributes of character in the admission process. It became clear that most approaches were ad hoc, and that if institutions were to signal the importance of character in their communities, work must be done to define character and to develop rubrics and tools for assessment that schools and colleges could use at their discretion in their own admission processes.

Subsequent annual meetings in Boston, Salt Lake City and Louisville, Ky., saw membership grow and the meeting agendas become more focused. In 2018, the institute changed its name to the Character Collaborative and was approved for 501(c)3 nonprofit status. David Holmes serves as the executive director, and I serve as chair of the board.

The Character Collaborative exists because we believe that character is fundamental to an engaged life, the fullest consideration of human potential, and a humane society. Guided by this belief, we submit that admission officers have the responsibility to recognize character in admission and signal its importance. We strive to develop a research-based framework and proven best practices for advancing the identification and consideration of character attributes in the admission process and in how we educate young people. We seek to collaborate with educators in schools, colleges, universities and other organizations who value character attributes as a fundamental consideration in the practice of holistic admission.

In carrying out its mission, the Character Collaborative is addressing several important questions. What are indicators of character attributes? How do we assess their existence in a valid way? What student actions or behaviors do we look for? How do we ensure that our assessments of character are free from personal bias or an interpretation connected to a specific social class? As we learn the answers to these and other questions, we can begin to develop the tools and the training to use them that will help admission offices determine if and how to consider character in the evaluation of student applications.

As a volunteer organization of colleges, secondary schools, professional associations, research organizations and individual counselors, the Character Collaborative is poised to produce the following to help schools and colleges jump-start a consistent assessment of character in their institution-specific admission process.

  • Presentations at national and regional educational conferences to make clear what we mean by “character” and why we seek to signal the importance of character in an admission process that looks at grades, test scores and personal qualities.
  • A summary of recent research on the impact of character on performance and on the development and testing of rubrics and other tools to assess various character attributes. This will familiarize admissions deans, presidents, school heads and boards with background information and data that could help them implement a move toward including elements of character in admission.
  • A resource guide that will provide online access to options for rubrics and assessment tools that schools and colleges may use in their admission process.
  • A web-based training course to help admission deans and their staffs implement the character assessment tools or rubrics that work for their institution’s admission process.
  • A resource guide for club, high school and college coaches prepared by coaches who believe in the power of character in student-athlete recruitment.

In order to move on the major deliverables, the collaborative has organized itself into four task force working groups, with volunteers from the membership to staff these groups:

Collaborative Operations

  • Marketing (including the website)
  • Diversifying/expanding membership
  • Fundraising

Character Assessment

  • Collecting and/or developing rubrics
  • Collecting assessment tools

Product Development

  • Preparing conference presentations
  • Researching and writing a literature review on character and performance
  • Developing a resource guide of assessment tools and rubrics
  • Initiating web-based training modules for implementing a process that incudes elements of character in admission

Athletics Recruiting and Character

  • Developing a resource guide for coaches

The Character Collaborative is a membership organization consisting of 65 institutions and 130 educational leaders and experts. The membership includes researchers, survey experts, reformers, admission deans, school counselors, and staff of national educational associations. Members have pledged their expertise and time to advance the agenda of the collaborative and are undertaking important work that is particularly relevant in today’s educational environment and in our society in general.

Members of the Character Collaborative include colleges and universities such as Bucknell, Chicago, Colgate, Cornell, Denver, Georgia Tech, MIT, Notre Dame, Oregon, Rochester, Swarthmore and Trinity. Secondary school members include such institutions as Andover, Bishops Blake, Catholic Memorial, Derryfield, Hun, Masters and St. Mark’s. In addition, the College Board, the Educational Testing Service and ACT are members along with Harvard’s Making Caring Common project (authors of "Turning the Tide") and UPenn’s Character Lab.

Although there are several major exceptions, current collaborative membership is primarily from independent schools and colleges, and from the independent education consultant group. Members of the collaborative recognize that we must diversify the membership if we are to be successful in helping colleges broaden their formal admission process to include the consideration of the character attributes important to their institution. That is a major goal for the coming year.

The Character Collaborative seeks new members, especially from public schools and universities. Members share the objective of encouraging school and college admission deans to embrace the notion of a holistic admission process that includes nonacademic factors such as character attributes in a formal and consistent way. Signaling the importance of character to the process of gaining admission to college will, we believe, result in more students and parents paying attention to good character as they prepare to join a particular campus community.

Bio

Robert Massa is chair of the Character Collaborative board and vice president emeritus for enrollment and college relations at Dickinson College. He has also served as chief enrollment officer at Johns Hopkins University and Drew University. To join or to speak with David Holmes or Bob Massa, contact David at [email protected] and Bob at [email protected].

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