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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


A Message for the "Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success"

In theory, moving away from standardized tests is a good thing. Ratcheting up the admissions arms race is not.

October 14, 2015

Two stories in my news:

Coalition Backlash

“More than 100 college counselors at Jesuit high schools urge group seeking to reform admissions process to rethink its plans and push back scheduled start for new system.”

Survey Finds High Stress Levels of Freshmen

A new national survey of freshmen found that 50 percent of them reported feeling stressed most or all of the time and 36 percent did not feel as if they were in control of managing the stress of day-to-day college life.”

I couldn't help but see these stories as related.

The college counselors are concerned about a plan from the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success to transition to a new system for college admissions where students create “virtual college lockers” that can “store academic work, nonacademic work, diaries, photos, art or anything that represents their growth as students.”

These materials could be made available to admissions committees and either replace or supplement traditional criteria like GPAs or test scores.

The counselors are concerned about starting the college admission process as early as ninth grade. In their words:

“Concern/anxiety over the placement of content that is stored in the locker will detract students from learning for learning’s sake instead of positioning oneself. The heightened scrutiny with which these documents will be assessed will devolve from what a positive high school educational experience can encompass into a competitive ‘stepping-stone’ mentality that will affect every decision within these formative years.”

These concerns are well-founded since students are already living in a culture that puts unreasonable pressure on their performance in school and how it may impact their choice of college and their post-collegiate futures. If we’re talking about children of privilege, ask any high school senior or first year college student about the laundry list of organizations and activities they joined for the sole purpose of looking good to a college.

The “virtual college locker” is an invitation to stuff that thing to the brim with experiences the students find generally meaningless, but which they believe make them look attractive to admissions committees.

It is common to charge that the current generation of young people are “coddled,” that their parents are too quick to bail them out of trouble or go overboard when it comes to providing support.

For sure, if you talk to students you will hear tales of parents concocting fake excuses for unstudied-for tests, or the hiring of coaches for Spanish, or calculus or the SAT’s, or even harassing teachers and administrators for every last GPA point. But rather than condemning parents, I question a culture that has people believing these sorts of behaviors are necessary for their children’s future well-being. Read Madeline Levine’s The Price of Privilege, or William Deresciewicz’s Excellent Sheep and listen to the testimony of the young people themselves and see what kind of pressure they believe they’re under to perform at the far end of the bell curve all the time.

Those of us on the other side may pooh-pooh these worries, but it is important to remember that we are on the other side. They are in the midst of it, and it apparently feels awful and is doing demonstrable harm.

While I respect the principle behind the coalition’s initiative, that we should be assessing applicants on something other than standardized test scores, as the high school counselors recognize, without much more thought, the inevitable result will be to simply add an additional dimension to the higher ed admissions arms race.

Additionally, this is a race that those children of privilege will inevitably win, defeating one of the core purposes of the coalition’s initiative, to extend opportunity to the less advantaged. As presently conceived, we’re simply looking at another dimension that can be gamed with more coaching, more consulting, more, more, more.


The underlying data in the survey on student stress contains some interesting information.

A strong majority of students (57%) felt “a great degree of pressure” to attend a well-known college. A similar percentage (52%) feel their high schools  emphasized prestige more than “fit” in choosing a college.

Eighty-seven percent say that their high schools focused on academic preparation for college, while 50% said their “independent living skills need improvement.”

Again, perhaps we are tempted to blame the parents for protecting their “precious little flowers,” but I believe something deeper is clearly happening, a cultural problem where fear of failure is the dominant driver of behavior.

Where we fear failure over desiring success (or even just being interested in having experiences) we beget unhappiness. In talking with students, many of them can’t conceive of what a “successful” life as a college student entails. They tend to bounce from crisis to crisis, this test, that social event, this relationship, that essay. Each is something which could (in their minds) ruin their entire college experience if it goes poorly.

This is not due to a lack of resiliency as some would posit. In fact, I find contemporary students to be remarkably resilient given the pressures they perceive. If I had to operate under similar pressures, I would’ve given up long before I finished college.

I try to cajole them into believing that the stakes are not as high as they think, that there is in fact room to experiment, to fall and get up, but this is not the world as they know it. They’ve know a world of scarcity, where scholarships only go to those with a 3.5 GPA or higher, where there are not enough jobs to go around, where the expense of college can cripple a family’s finances, or come coupled with a lifetime of debt.

Students perceive these high stakes because they are reality. I believe students feel they’re emotionally unprepared for college because we’ve bequeathed them a world that is nearly impossible to emotionally prepare for.

That some students crumble under the weight of these expectations is to be expected. They’re only human.

If that coalition wants to improve the culture of college admissions, and indeed higher education itself, I hope they examine ways to significant de-escalate the stress and stakes surrounding admissions.

Starting the process earlier is the exact wrong thing to do.

Perhaps, they could look at the things they prioritize in their admissions, to move from an emphasis on achievement as judged by product and artifacts, and instead focus on process and growth, and consider what kinds of experiences students should have that will indeed make them academically and emotionally ready for college.

Maybe that “virtual college locker” should require a certain number of screw-ups to be documented. Students will share their stories of failing an exam they didn’t study for, or getting busted with beer underneath the stands at the football game, or getting turned down for a date to the prom. They will describe how that felt, and what they learned from those experiences, what is different about them now.

We grownups know that we are much more the product of our failures than our successes. We need to carve out the space that gives students the same freedoms, and when it comes to college admissions, we could show them that we value the process of learning, rather than the products of achievement. I don’t see it now. I don’t see how this initiative as conceived, and on the planned timeline, moves us closer, either.

I’m glad to hear the coalition is listening and open to additional perspectives. I want them to know I’m available. I’ve taught at three of your member institutions (see the trunk above).

I know these students. I can help.




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