This has been an interesting couple of weeks for college admissions, following an interesting year.
The Harvard Graduate School of Education has issued a report entitled Turning the Tide, that advocates for a major overhaul in the way college admissions is done. I spoke to the author of the document last year as he was pulling support together, and my first response was, frankly, not enthusiastic. It seemed the things we talked about–highly stressed students focusing on developing the perfect resume solely for the purpose of getting into an elite institution–were not on my radar. My university is one of the several hundred in the great middle of the distribution in higher education in the US: Moderately selective, reasonably well known, with a reputation and a student body unlike the Ivy League institutions; although my (gr)atitude has been labeled “sour grapes,” I can honestly say I wouldn’t want to work at those super-selective institutions, who are best known for making a silk purse out of silk. (In the interest of fairness, I should point out that the president of DePaul, a colleague of the author at Harvard, signed in support of the paper.)
As I read through the document, though, I softened a bit. Some of the recommendations are very consistent with my own philosophy: De-emphasizing standardized tests, promoting the idea that there are many, many more great colleges than the average American might think, and encouraging students to get off the hamster wheel. It’s hard to argue with much of it, even if the problems it touches do seem to be experienced by a very small group of colleges at the top of the bell curve, and even if it’s always easier to find problems than to correct them.
Despite this, many school counselors in a Facebook group I belong to are still skeptical. Some reported calls from parents who asked whether junior could drop an AP course or two. Others want to know just how this could or should change the approach toward the application. Will Dix took a major swing at it here, and summed up a lot of thinking from a lot of people. I don’t agree with all of what he writes, but much of it is spot on. Some of my colleagues are convinced that “kindness” consultants will crop up to help students appear more kind and caring. This, of course, is simply Campbell’s Law, and no one should be surprised by it.
One poster in our group even suggested that changing admissions criteria was a way to legally discriminate against Asian students, who, when evaluated simply or solely on academic accomplishment and test scores, simply outshine others. It’s an interesting theory, I think, and not unlike my recent post suggesting law suits by Asian students might be the first step in diminishing the importance of the SAT or ACT. But I’m not sure that’s it.
Others have pointed out that this initiative may have the opposite effect: Students who lack superstar credentials might think “kindness” is sufficient for admission and might apply in droves, making these institutions even more selective, and thus even more prone to focus on those with extraordinary academic accomplishments. Possibly. Prestige–and thus selectivity–are the coin of the realm in much of higher education.
My concern is a conceptual one: Should kindness be a value measured and rewarded in the college admissions process? I mean, the easy answer is yes, but shouldn’t that be a local decision each college makes on its own? Should’t there be room for colleges who actually strive to make students kinder, or more compassionate? Or will the super-selective institutions simply take kind students, turn out kind students, and take credit for it, much like critics say they do in matters academic? A bigger question for another day, I think.
The most common observation and objection, however, was that this was somehow tied to The Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success, a controversial alignment of strange bedfellows in higher education who, apparently frustrated with some technical difficulties the Common Application encountered, decided to take their ball and go home. (I cannot confirm that any of them did or did not suffer irreparable harm, but egos are large in higher ed, and those bruises aren’t so easily seen). It’s possible, of course, that the creators of The Coalition were a part of this: That they suspected their own initiative, one I suggested was really not about college access at all, would somehow seem sweeter if dipped in sugar and drizzled with caramel.
I’m not so sure about that, either, but I suppose it’s possible, even though the timing doesn’t seem right. I do, however, see another connection, and one that seems to be overlooked. Turning the Tide seems to owe more to Excellent Sheep than it does to other sources, and interestingly enough, both are faculty initiatives.
Could it be that Turning the Tide is simply an expression of faculty who yearn to teach fewer grinds, fewer Wall Street focused students, fewer students who want to be told what to do in order to get their reward? Could it be they’d just like to teach students who care about bigger societal issues rather than their own comfort, amusement, and power? Students who want to chart their own course, and define success in ways they think are more personal?
In a chapter I wrote on the role of college admissions in the academy for a university textbook, I included this:
Similarly, Karabel (2005) suggests that the policies of the admissions offices at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton in the late 1800’s and early part of the 20th century had as much, or even more, to do with shaping the 20th century as what actually went on inside the classrooms at those quintessential brand names in American higher education. This might seem like a formidable burden to hoist onto the shoulders of mere gatekeepers, but it exists as perhaps an excellent introduction to the widely divergent perspectives on college admissions offices today.
If you believe admissions offices can shape the world we live in, Turning the Tide might stand as a milestone of societal change. And I hope that’s the case. But if the support from the super-selectives is disingenuous, we’ll find out soon enough.
What do you think?