In March, the high school class of 2016 will receive word from the universities and colleges to which they submitted regular decision applications, and yet another year of what Frank Bruni of the New York Times has dubbed “college admissions mania” will come to a close.
Meanwhile, a new report — “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions” — created by the Making Caring Common project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education urges colleges to consider the way in which their admission practices contribute to a “culture emphasizing individual achievement.” The report was endorsed by Jim Miller ’73, dean of admission.
“We have been worried for a number of years about a mad rush to credentialing,” Miller said. He said pressure on college applicants has risen over the years, adding that he witnessed this pressure first-hand when his daughter applied to college.
Colleges occupy a uniquely influential position in the consciousness of adolescents, and institutions should use this power to “send different messages that help young people become more generous and humane,” the report reads.
The report calls on colleges to reform their practices in a three-pronged approach. First, colleges should judge extracurricular activities on the basis of their significance rather than their volume; second, they should reward students who are ethically engaged in their communities and take into account the way that class, race and culture influence their various engagements; and third, they should “level the playing field for economically diverse students and reduce excessive achievement pressure.”
This is the approach to admission that Brown has taken for a while, Miller said. Endorsing the report was a matter of affirming Brown’s intention to continue prioritizing “students who have joy in what they’re doing,” over those who pad their resumes, he said.
But there are “inconsistencies” between the admission values and practices that colleges purport, said Steven Goodman, higher education expert at Top Colleges, an independent college advising firm. Behind the rhetoric of moving to a more humane process, “universities are recruiting more and more students and not increasing the number of slots,” in an effort to boost selectivity, Goodman said. Colleges are disdainful of resume stuffing, but given the hyper-selective climate that colleges foster, Goodman asked: “what do you expect high school students to do?”
The report attempts to solve this conundrum by calling on admission officers and college advisors to “challenge the misconception that there are only a handful of excellent colleges.”
But top colleges have a vested interest in communicating a certain charmed image of their institutions, said Stephen Nelson, senior scholar in the Leadership Alliance at Brown. Admission officers at elite schools say “this isn’t the only place,” while simultaneously fostering an institutional mythology that an education from their particular school is uniquely “transformative,” Nelson said.
Simply changing the criteria by which colleges select students is not enough, Nelson said. “The problem is all they’ve done is reinvent resume stuffing,” he said, adding that so long as the K-12 American education system remains economically stratified, students in wealthy areas will find ways to master the new standards, while less privileged students remain disadvantaged.
Though there is concern that adopting new standards will merely become “prescriptive,” with students engaging in civic activities for the sake of college admission, the values set forth by the report hold great significance, Miller said. “At the end of the day, we hope you’ll be a better person.”
Moreover, it remains unclear whether colleges really have as much social power as the report assumes they have, Nelson said. Much of the stress in the college process stems not from colleges themselves but from pressures imposed by the adults in students’ lives and the backgrounds from which they come, he said.
Additionally, the report fails to distinguish between elite and non-elite colleges, and the reforms it sets forth may not apply to the admission process at many non-selective universities, he said.
“Not all of it will be applicable to all schools,” Miller said. But college admission “is a very ‘I’ focused process,” across the board, and many schools would do well to reevaluate the messages they send to students, he said.