Character and Admission

With the Supreme Court likely poised to bar affirmative action in admissions, it’s time to think about what we can consider, write Tom Bear and David Holmes.

January 23, 2023

The 2022 Survey of College and University Admissions Directors, conducted by Inside Higher Ed, provided feedback on a range of topics: affirmative action, testing, the calculus “requirement,” legacy admissions, letters of recommendation, direct admission, the May 1 reply date, future goals. All have bearing on the college admissions process going forward. However, the potential reversal of race-conscious admissions, the decline in students submitting standardized test scores and the increasing momentum for “direct admissions” present a cathartic moment for college admissions.

What will replace the factor of race in admissions? Beyond the high school record—with grade inflation still on the increase—and with submitting test scores likely to remain optional at a majority of institutions, how will colleges measure academic promise? Will the direct admissions format offer sufficient opportunity for an applicant’s self-reflection and a college’s informed assessment, or is this new way to consider college options really just the latest tactic to influence the size of the admissions funnel? Layer these questions onto the lingering impact of a pandemic world that has changed the personal and educational trajectory of young people, and it becomes clear that we need answers sooner rather than later.

With its inception in 2016, the Character Collaborative brought together educators with a common interest in elevating nonacademic factors and character-related attributes in the admissions process. The collaborative seeks to influence secondary school and college admissions practices to reflect the significance of character strengths in attaining success in school, college and work. During its six-year history, it has attracted over 70 institutional members and 300 active participants in its workshops, course curricula and podcasts. In the wake of COVID-accelerated test-optional policies along with a renewed focus on access and equity, the movement toward a holistic admission has been rapid. In response, the collaborative has advocated the elevation of character attributes as a critical part of the selection process.

Institutions Must Signal What They Value

It is crucial that what institutions value in applicants are clear in publications, websites and all communications. They must make clear how this knowledge/information is used in the admissions process.

Andrew Moe, the director of admissions at Swarthmore College, asked his faculty to identify student characteristics they most appreciated and found beneficial in the classroom. These traits translated to eight qualities and attributes, including generosity toward others, open-mindedness and intellectual curiosity, and an enthusiasm for learning, that Swarthmore articulates on its website. Being able to identify those attributes provides transparency and clarity in the admissions process.

The University of Pennsylvania admissions director John McLaughlin reported that his institution is undergoing an internal re-evaluation about university character and values and how they inform admissions practice and the language used in the process. He sees that process being transformed from excellence of mind to pursuit of knowledge, from impact in your space to contribution in context, and an alignment to Penn’s purpose and aim.

Exhibit How Desired Character Traits Are Identified and Connect to Institutional Mission

Keith Wright, vice president for psychometrics and assessment at the Enrollment Management Association and the chief architect of its Character Skills Snapshot, shared research showing that noncognitive factors are both important to parents and to success in work, school, and life. Noncognitive attributes and academic performance correlate.

Brennan Barnard, the director of college counseling at Khan Academy, works with his students to help them accurately represent who they are in the college admissions process. He advises students to choose something that is personally meaningful and stretches their thinking. He also suggests they dig deeper into a topic they are already passionate about. This provides institutions with an authentic presentation of the student applying for admission.

Nathan Kuncel, professor of industrial-organization psychology at the University of Minnesota, challenged the collaborative to make certain that what we are doing and saying about character in admission is valid and associated with outcomes we care about. Alignment between institutional culture and desired student outcomes is critically important in admissions work. We need to know why we are doing what we want to do in this space.

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Paul Mueller, the director of enrollment strategy at the University of Notre Dame, asserted that his institution’s mission encourages individuals to be a powerful force for good in the world. Hence, desired character traits emerge from this call to purpose, such as intellectual curiosity, well-roundedness, openness, commitment in service to others with true motivation.

Jonathan Williams, the associate vice president for undergraduate admissions at New York University, asserted that institutions must identify their priorities. At NYU, institutional priorities include socioeconomic and ethnic diversity, affordability, academic strength, and geographic diversity. In order to support these priorities, admission practices need to place students first by reducing barriers and by being cognizant of a student’s situation (i.e., personal context). In a holistic admission process, these practices enable NYU to attract dynamic, talented, diverse students who will thrive at NYU and beyond.

Act in the Best Interest and Well-Being of Students and, in So Doing, Build Equity

Trisha Anderson from Harvard’s Making Caring Common project spoke about their ongoing work with the Common Application to emphasize context in assessing students’ personal qualities through changes in essay prompts and in giving applicants additional choices for listing activities, such as caring for younger siblings and working to support the household. These changes will help to increase the focus on equity and on character.

David Hawkins, chief education officer of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, acknowledged that there are persistent inequities in testing and academic evaluations. Other inequities, all related to school funding, include access to high school courses, counselors and academic pathways. NACAC is working on a comprehensive approach to build equity, including consistent and valid ways to measure and assess character in applicants.

Debra Wilson, the CEO of the Southern Association of Independent Schools, noted that wellness has been a significant, ongoing concern among schools, especially during COVID and the rise of remote learning, social distancing and masking. Concern about student wellness, supported by recent and older research, leads to more focus on character attributes such as resilience, kindness, empathy, agency and self-advocacy. In addition, there is more focus today on belonging and inclusion than several years ago. Recognizing these considerations, consistency in messaging and in how a school selects students are critical and will result in more successful matches.

Match Students to Institutions

Whitney Soule, vice provost and dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, is working on developing clarity about what is valued in applicants and why. She observed that “the value of our school is not in our admit rate or that you are one of the ones who were accepted; the value is in finding the students who will build our community.” The guiding assumption is that students who are accepted will work to build community around Penn’s shared values.

Final Thoughts

These four themes reinforce the principle that admissions decisions should demonstrate a matching of student character attributes to institutional mission/vision statements. This match will optimize individual and institutional success. As the optional consideration of standardized tests becomes more fully ingrained in the admission process and we move into the next phase of holistic admission, the consideration of character attributes in candidate evaluation needs to become standard practice. In addition, if the recent actions around direct admissions grow into a legitimate platform for applying to college, it is imperative to include sufficient opportunity for students to self-reflect and for colleges to identify character-based qualities that are related to success.

For the assessment of character attributes to become commonplace in admission decisions, common standards must be developed to help institutions determine the desired character traits in their students and to assure that the criteria for identifying them have been validated. Once standards and criteria are developed, it is essential that we signal the importance of desired traits to students as we work to build and shape our campus communities. Always, we must work in the best interest of students with an unceasing concern for equity and inclusion. Finally, in our advising and recruitment, we must continually seek to match students to institutions. The right match is the single best way to ensure mutual success of students and institutions.

In the future, we can expect a Supreme Court ruling on race-conscious admissions. Correspondingly, there will likely be an ongoing retreat from standardized testing. With these fundamental changes in the admission environment, colleges must begin planning the requisite policy and process changes now. We believe the formalized consideration of character could be the linchpin of a new paradigm in college admissions.

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Tom Bear is the vice president for enrollment management at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and the board chair of the Character Collaborative. David Holmes, who died after he co-wrote this piece, was head of school at Suffield Academy and the Sun Valley Community School. He was co-founder and executive director of the Character Collaborative.

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