Kindness Won't Cure College Admissions

Can admissions officers truly compare levels of gratitude and responsibility among applicants in any equitable way, asks Elaine Tuttle Hansen.

February 11, 2016

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.


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