If you could fix just one of the things that many people think are wrong with American education today, what would it be?
Choose revamping the college admissions system and you’d be in distinguished company. A recent report from the Harvard School of Education asserts that some feel-good changes in admissions criteria will readily solve a number of recalcitrant problems.
So why are the educators I’ve talked to -- including the parent of an A-plus student, Arabic and Chinese speaker, two-sport captain just deferred in early admissions at a top Ivy -- so outraged by this latest attempt to reform an admissions system that we all agree is doing more harm than good?
The report, “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good Through College Admissions,”proposes to de-emphasize individual performance and achievement, reduce stress on children and parents alike, graduate better citizens, and level the playing field for disadvantaged students. The magic bullets? A shift from “long brag sheets” about extracurricular activities and community service to a few lines for listing “authentically chosen” activities generating “emotional and ethical awareness and skills.” Group activities will trump individual contributions, because they develop more “gratitude and responsibility.” Experiences with “diversity” are recommended, but only those that are not “patronizing.”
While another recent admissions reform proposed by several top colleges and universities -- the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success -- immediately generated widespread critique, the report’s suggestion that we admit only the most grateful, ethical students has apparently already caught on. One of the 88 and “growing” supporters, Yale University, has decided to add a question next fall asking students “to reflect on engagement with and contribution to their family, community and/or the public good.”
It’s hard to argue against personal kindness or the common good and even harder to find a college mission statement that doesn’t already say something about making the world a better place. But a moment’s thought about implementing these particular changes invites only skepticism and confusion.
Who will guide and monitor white students to the requisite experiences with diversity, using whose definition of “patronizing”? Can admissions readers equitably compare levels of gratitude and responsibility based on an essay? Whose measures of true citizenship and emotional and ethical skills will they be instructed to use? And if we could address all these questions and actually admit only nice people, how might the culture and pedagogy of, say, Harvard University have to change to serve the social-emotional needs of a more caring student body?
Claiming these changes will benefit disadvantaged students seems especially disingenuous. Under the proposed system, for example, holding a job in order to support one’s family will be a highly prized precollege activity. But in Baltimore, where I live, it’s ludicrous to imagine students in high-poverty families, assuming they can find a job, will have the specific kind of work experiences that colleges are supposed to be looking for: ones emerging from “particular passions and interests” and providing “opportunity for reflection.”
Like many, I believe education should and can make the world a better place. But I also believe we know too little about how and when to identify, characterize, measure and develop the so-called noncognitive aspects of learning that this report asks colleges to evaluate. And I disagree that the gateway to college is the time or place to subject young people to the full impact of our ignorance about how to fairly assess things they should still be questioning and exploring -- like character, feelings, motives and values.
Ten years ago Barry Schwartz, a psychology professor at Swarthmore College, proposed a truly revolutionary solution to the problems of college admissions: a lottery system. Each college or university would identify the threshold of qualifications needed to succeed as clearly and objectively as possible, evaluate which candidates were eligible, and then roll the dice.
That’s not unlike how we do it at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, where I work. We set an eligibility threshold for exceptionally advanced precollege learning, measured by an above-level standardized test and using objective evidence (backed by experience). Anyone at or above the threshold can attend if their parents can pay; if they can’t, we offer as much financial aid as we can fund-raise and find in our budget.
Our system isn’t perfect. Measuring aptitude and potential through above-level testing works for students who have had a reasonable dose of learning opportunities, but we don’t yet know how best to characterize and identify advanced ability in kids who have been shortchanged by poverty and poor schooling. To that end, we also invest in pilot programs to expand opportunities for students from underresourced communities and in research on identification, characterization and practices for serving the needs of advanced learners from all backgrounds. A lottery system, to be equitable and inclusive, would also require significant and persistent investment in strategies to level the playing field before college.
Instead of wasting time trying to fix today’s deeply flawed admissions process, there’s a lot to be said for adopting something more like Schwartz’s lottery. We could then spend our collective time working on how to improve what we do from K-12 through graduate school to develop human potential, before and after admissions letters go out.
Elaine Tuttle Hansen is the executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, the former president of Bates College and past provost of Haverford College.
It has been clear for some time that the American college admissions system is fundamentally flawed. Between the Common App’s monopoly over the admissions process and U.S. News & World Report's rankings -- which give institutions points for selectivity and higher test scores -- it has been nearly impossible for individual colleges to change the way they recruit and admit students who are a good fit for their specific programs.
The Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success -- a group of more than 80 higher education institutions that includes the Ivies, Stanford University, top liberal arts colleges and major state universities -- represents bold steps in a new direction. One hopes that the range of colleges and universities included in the coalition will allow each of its members to keep up pressure in three key ways: shifting from tests and transcripts to a more robust, portfolio-based admissions process; ensuring financial-aid transparency; and providing not only admissions advice about the institution itself but also helping the widest group of students in its community to navigate, as they say at the KIPP network of charter schools, “to and through college.”
The shift from a college admissions system that serves colleges to one that serves students and families is a national imperative if we wish to train young people for the jobs they will discover and the lives they will lead in the 21st century -- most of which do not even exist today.
If we want to change fundamentally the things that are broken with the current system, we need to go further, instituting a new framework that improves outcomes for colleges, parents and, most of all, students. We must tackle the tough questions: How can we steer the most students to colleges where they will thrive? How can we make the admissions process both challenging and a level playing field? How can we make financial aid fair and transparent?
I recommend a two-step process similar to medical school admissions. It requires colleges and universities to:
1. Establish a simple and consistent across-the-board threshold. It includes the student’s transcript, standardized test scores, activities résumé, school writing sample and a short personal essay. Students can apply to a limited number of schools -- say, 15 -- for one price. Students who receive free or reduced lunch receive 100 percent fee waivers. Colleges read the folders and decide who is academically qualified. They rank all students likely, possible or no. And they provide information about how much financial aid the student will receive if admitted later.
All financial aid is based on need (in relation to that institution’s ability to provide aid). If a college is “gapping” (admitting a student but not providing sufficient aid), the amount of debt the student will be required to assume is clear to the student and parent. There are no early admissions and no exceptions, not even for athletes.
This step provides a sanity check for students: they must apply to colleges where they are academically qualified, or they’ll end up with nothing. It also makes the first step more helpful for parents, who can see how likely their children are to get admitted and to receive financial aid at different colleges. This first, fact-based round enables colleges to select a smaller group of students to review more intensively and explore who the best candidates are for their particular programs and priorities.
2. Explore in some depth the fit between each student and the institution. Colleges identify those students who have the intellectual, personal and moral characteristics to be good citizens in their communities. And students determine which colleges will nurture their particular intellectual and personal ambitions, their sense of who they want to become in college and in life. Colleges can be innovative here: they might consider assessment centers, as suggested by Adam Grant, professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. (Such activities can be done online or in person, with the assumption that every aspect of this second phase will be paid by the college for all students.) Colleges can also try different types of writing assignments (as at Bard College), videos (like Goucher College), inventions, op-eds, interviews -- whatever they like, and in whatever combination they like, in order to get to know each student better. This should be fun and empowering for students, who should be encouraged to reveal who they think they would become at each college that they are considering.
At the end of this second round, students and colleges rank their preferences, and a computer optimizes the outcomes -- like the internship match in medicine.
This is actually how the core admissions work is done now for many state universities’ selective honors programs: a computer accepts the top tier and rejects the bottom. In a second round, students submit additional essays, videos and other projects, and the college then decides who is admitted to premier programs -- which include financial aid packages as well as smaller, more selective classes.
You could argue that transforming the tangled and misaligned assumptions of the current jury-rigged system into something this clean and simple will be extremely difficult. Indeed, it will take significant collective will to achieve something equitable and empowering for students of all backgrounds. But this two-step process is fair, transparent and fun -- three things that the current system is not and that the coalition’s ambitious opening gambit, by itself, cannot ensure.
Carol Barash is the founder and CEO of Story2, the company that expands writing fluency and self-advocacy through storytelling.