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Cornell University

Last week I had the opportunity to serve as keynote speaker at the Pennsylvania Association for College Admission Counseling conference in Hershey. It was the first time in three years that PACAC had been able to meet in person, and it was more like a homecoming or family reunion than a conference. It was good to see old friends and make new ones.

My keynote address was titled “Professional Ethics: Endangered Species?” and I explored some themes I have previously written about and presented on. Quite frankly, after nearly 10 years of writing “Ethical College Admissions” I often worry that I am rehashing previous posts.

While researching my presentation I realized that I had done the keynote 11 years ago at a different PACAC event, the August admission workshop. For that meeting I was asked to talk about the future of our profession, and I mentioned five big issues:

  • Demographic change
  • Economic uncertainty
  • Delivery of college counseling
  • Changing admission landscape
  • The future of college admissions and college counseling as a profession

All of those issues are still relevant, but what is more noteworthy is what I didn’t (and probably couldn’t) anticipate. I couldn’t have dreamed that the National Association for College Admission Counseling would be investigated by the Department of Justice for potential antitrust violations. I didn’t foresee the Varsity Blues scandal. It never occurred to me that within 10 years we would live through a global pandemic. And I didn’t anticipate the political climate and social unrest that led on one hand to the Black Lives Matter movement and on the other to red state attempts to return to the 1950s.

During my speech I talked primarily about professional ethics, but I also talked about how COVID has highlighted the urgent need for attention to mental health and wellness. I suspect that we will be dealing with the fallout for at least a decade as students who lost opportunities for learning and for normal emotional development during the pandemic cycle through the educational system. That is both a college counseling issue and also an issue for colleges once students enroll.

The question for the college admissions profession is whether the college admissions process as presently constituted contributes to the stress and mental health issues felt by today’s students.

The admission process we have today is nearly 100 years old. In his history of admissions at Harvard, Yale and Princeton Universities, The Chosen, sociologist Jerome Karabel talks about college admission “paradigms” (my word, not his).

A century ago colleges looked for the “best student.” Admission was based on purely academic preparation, with the old College Board exams resembling today’s Advanced Placement exams, measuring what content a student knew.

In the 1920s colleges moved to a second admissions paradigm, “best graduate.” Karabel argues that the rationale for the change was that the “best student” paradigm produced too many Jewish students. Today one of the arguments made by Students for Fair Admissions in its lawsuits against Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is that Asian American students are discriminated against in the way Jewish students were a century ago.

The “best graduate” paradigm led to many of the admissions conventions we rely on today. Admission became “holistic” rather than purely academic, with essays, activities and recommendation letters becoming part of the admissions process. While I believe in the concept of holistic admission, the addition of those factors made applying to college resemble applying to a private club. At the same time the SAT supplanted the old College Board exams, purported at the time to be a measure of aptitude, as venerable Northeast colleges and universities sought to become more national in their student bodies and find “diamonds in the rough.”

The third, current paradigm is what might be called “best class.” Whereas once upon a time colleges admitted well-rounded students, today they are looking for a well-rounded class. Highly selective colleges are crafting a class rather than admitting deserving individuals, and students are admitted based on how they help the institution meet its strategic goals. We give lip service to student-centered admission, but what we have is really institution-centered admission.

Is It Time for a Fourth Paradigm?

Given what we know about adolescent growth and development and concerns about access and mental health, is it time for a fourth paradigm?

There has already been considerable debate about the future role of standardized admission testing. The admissions world has become largely test optional, and in some cases test blind. Is that a temporary change or the new normal? Was MIT’s resumption of requiring testing a harbinger or an outlier?

I suspect the latter. I may be wrong (it wouldn’t be the first time), but I don’t see the testing industry rebounding to be as important as it once was. The Ivies and near-Ivies that admit fewer than 10 percent of applicants can get away with requiring testing, but will students bother to apply to colleges with test requirements when there are lots of test-optional choices? That is particularly true for colleges that recruit heavily in California, where both the University of California and the California State University systems are no longer considering test scores as part of their admissions processes. Are colleges willing to see a decline in applications in exchange for requiring test scores?

The testing debate raises broader philosophical questions about the value of test scores. How much predictive value does testing add to a student’s transcript? Are standardized tests engines of equity and access, as argued by test advocates, or do they measure economic privilege rather than academic readiness? How do we account for test prep, the existence of which makes identical scores mean not the same thing? Do we worship the false precision of test scores? And do we measure what we value or value what we can measure?

Testing may not be the only part of the admissions process up for debate and reconsideration. An Inside Higher Ed article earlier this year asked whether letters of recommendation were fair or even outdated given the inequality in school college-going cultures and counseling loads.

So what might a fourth college admissions paradigm look like? At the risk of showing once again my command of the obvious, here are some guiding principles to consider.

  1. The college admissions process should measure readiness for the college experience. Anything that we ask students to do should be predictive of success in college, and we should evaluate carefully the hurdles we expect applicants to clear. What information is essential to admission? Earlier this week a college dean admitted that some of the information requested on the application is only relevant for students once they enroll rather than for admission.
  2. The college search should encourage discernment and self-understanding. Thinking about and applying to college is part of a larger journey for students, a journey that should produce a better understanding of who they are, what they care about and what they want from their lives.
  3. Applying to college should be a “Goldilocks” process—not too easy, not too hard, just right.
  4. The admission process should be student-centered rather than institution-centered.

There is one more guiding principle that will be much more difficult to achieve. That is the idea that the admissions process should serve as a bridge from adolescence to adulthood, a rite of passage. Taking the SAT and ACT and writing personal essays does not quite compare to rites of passage in other cultures such as young Maasai warriors killing a lion (although that rite of passage seems to have evolved due to a shortage of lions in the Serengeti, from 200,000 a century ago to fewer than 30,000 today). The psychologist Michael Thompson has called the college admissions process a “failed” rite of passage, in that it provides the ordeal without the catharsis.

The bridge-to-adulthood goal may be a pipe dream. Given what we know about brain development, it may be unrealistic to expect high school students to have the self-knowledge or life skills that I wish the college process required. I’m not ready to concede that point, and that doesn’t mean that the aspiration is not valid.

Is it time to rethink the college admissions process we have? Can we develop a better paradigm?

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