Sea Change in College Admissions

Driven by a desire to provide a counterweight to the benefits conferred by wealth in education and college admissions, a group of colleges and universities have endorsed a report that could be a harbinger of significant change in how they select students (presumably for scholarships if not for admissions purposes). In particular, whereas today, a prospective student might be evaluated on his or her accomplishments for their sake, in future these might also be seen through the lens of how they benefitted others.

In terms of educational performance, research suggests that wealth is correlated with everything from higher standardized test scores to better outcomes in college admissions (especially at the most selective institutions), higher graduation rates, and higher post-graduation income (although this last bit might be distorted by geography). Test scores and school performance can be influenced by the availability of expensive test preparation programs, tutors, not to mention better schools in safer locations, and along with more intangible factors. As for extra-curricular activities, excellence comes with a heavy price tag that is affordable only to families with financial means. Recall that current admissions processes involve holistic evaluations that arguably tilt admissions in favor of higher income families that are able to afford good schools, tutors, and extensive extra-curricular development. Students from lower income families who may have to hold down a job to help their families, or who may have to take care of their siblings while parents work multiple jobs, are clearly at a disadvantage.

Unfortunately, in the United States (and all over the world in fact) the gulf between rich and poor has widened. That gap worsened through the 2007/2009 financial crisis leading President Obama to declare in December 2013, that inequality was the “defining challenge of our time.” More notably perhaps, in the recent presidential primaries in the United States which determine presidential nominees for the Republican and Democratic parties, inequality and its root causes may have become a major wedge issue, dividing people along generational and even ethnic lines. There is now widespread recognition among younger Americans that wealth disparities are correlated with many life outcomes; people who start out better off, tend to live longer, do better in school, and earn higher incomes. To dispel the notion that genetics can explain the persistence of privilege, it is worth noting that as regards economic mobility, the United States is probably the worst performer among OECD countries, a fact that belies the country’s reputation as a place where anybody who works hard can achieve their dreams.

Another trend that would have been evident to interested parents and families lies in the increasing impossibility of admissions to highly selective admissions. This phenomenon has been correlated with high levels of stress among high school students aiming for admission to “elite” post-secondary institutions. In fact, competition is so intense that there is a veritable “arms race” between students, to take more Advanced Placement and/or Higher Level International Baccalaureate coursework and indeed any form of advanced coursework. This year, for example, students admitted to Georgia Tech under its Early Action plan, took on average 10 or more college-level courses. There is also a suspicion that increased academic stress may have been correlated with the occurrence of teenage suicide clusters in California, Virginia, and Massachusetts. No decent human being wants to be associated with a system that leads to teenage suicides; certainly nobody pursues a career in education so that they can be associated with student suicides. Something has to change.

Change appears to have come in the form of the report “Turning the Tide” published by Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, one that was endorsed by over sixty liberal arts colleges and universities. Arguably the report, which qualifies as a major policy statement by endorsing institutions, represents an attempt to shift the balance in college admissions. From the outset, the report states that it “advances a new, widely shared vision of college admissions that … makes the case that college admissions can send compelling messages that both ethical engagement—especially concern for others and the common good—and intellectual engagement are highly important”. More concretely, the report recommends that colleges give weight to three areas in determining which students get admitted – “meaningful contribution to others and engagement with the public good”, “ethical engagement” and “redefining achievement in ways that both level the playing field for economically diverse students and reduce excessive achievement pressure”.

How will the recommendations in “Turning the Tide” be implemented (due regard being had, for financial considerations)? What will change, if anything? Even if admissions processes do not change, will applications nonetheless be read differently than they have been in the past? How will students and families “game” the new system? Then there is the litmus test – how will the profile of admitted students change? Will change be incremental? How will change differ from institution to institution? Only time will tell.

What we do know is that the question of what drives your child is now very material. Doubtless, the issue is tricky because our value and belief systems now come into play. For many of us, a reasonable answer for a kid in high school would be “good marks”, because that is what they have been told is all important. Another answer might be “good marks plus excellence in music, arts or sports”. For many colleges and universities, that would probably be an acceptable answer as well, but it is possible that increasingly, they will be looking for more (or perhaps even something entirely different) from the student. Presumably, if an admissions committee could look into the heart of the child, the characteristic they would be looking for, would be a concern for the world at large. If your child has a privileged background, regardless of whether he or she is an accomplished student athlete, the key test might well turn out to be whether he or she exploited that privilege for the benefit of others. That would be a radical change indeed.