College and University Hypocrisy

Although most people outside the college admission business tend to see admission deans as all-powerful gatekeepers, they are really functionaries carrying out institutional policies. These policies can be almost impossibly complex, as any admission dean will tell you: “We want to highest scores and best achieving students; the most racial diversity; the best sports teams; and a perfect mix of full-pay and financial aid students,” says the president, who in turn is responding to the desires of his/her Board of Trustees. Suffice it to say that if Harvard decided to become a football powerhouse tomorrow, Bill Fitzsimmons would be recruiting a very different student body.

Regardless, although many colleges seem to be acknowledging the stress their admission policies put on students, they don’t seem to be doing anything about helping ease it. Just saying “Don’t stress out about your college application” just doesn’t cut it when there are 23,000 applicants for 1,500 spots, let’s say. Marilee Jones’s admirable book “Less Stress, More Success” goes a long way toward defining the problems and her co-author, a child psychologist, offers some ways to deal with stress, but for anything to change substantively, it’s going to have to be colleges that do it. Until they make clear they need students to arrive at their schools ready to plunge into the world of academic endeavor, and not burned out just from trying to get to college, nothing will change.

I suggest a few things that colleges can do:

1. Eliminate the reliance on standardized testing. It’s been said a million times and in almost as many ways. Studies (not commissioned by the College Board) have shown the tests to be at best just providing the same information as GPA, and so on. Even if you believe it can be useful, the tests are being used incorrectly as ways to compare high schools, etc. It has only one purpose, to predict success freshman year. that seems like a lot to pile on the back of a test and the test prep industry proves it. Many excellent schools have already taken this step.

2. Stop using “AP” as shorthand for a strong schedule and look more carefully at each individual high school. Alternatively, make a strong statement about how many AP courses you consider appropriate in a high school student’s curriculum and then make decisions accordingly. Or make students who take more than, say, five APs defend their reasons for doing so. Ask what they plan to get or have gotten from taking the courses beyond the AP designation. Stop rewarding behavior that keeps adolescents up until 2AM studying. (This has nothing to do with the quality or lack thereof of AP courses; that’s another topic.)

3. Don’t say you want to see depth instead of breadth in student activities and then reward the students with the most glamorous array of activities and offices. Like MIT and some other places, limit the space for recording activities to three or so and make students say why they chose those activities. Also, while leadership is important, good “followership” is important as well. Reward the athlete who rode the bench for most of the season but didn’t quit the team; acknowledge the student who helped the MUN team win the award even if he or she didn’t get public credit.

4. Stop being blinded by sparkles and glitz. Let people know that while summer programs may be fine for individual development, they are not necessary for admission to a college. Let applicants and their families know that it’s at least as valuable if not more so to have a job in the summer or to read on one’s own, etc. This has the added value of leveling the playing field for those who can’t afford to attend expensive summer programs or who HAVE to work. Think this way: How many of your applicants would have done summer programs if they didn’t “look good” for college?

5. Think more about the difference between “authenticity” and “presentation” and figure out ways to promote the former over the latter. This is related to #4 in the sense that an “authentic” applicant has the feel of someone who has applied as an adjunct to his or her academic/extracurricular life rather than as an end in itself. (I realize this is circular reasoning…) How to tell the difference? Start by making applications LESS, not MORE, complicated. Instead of grand essay topics, ask about favorite courses, books read, etc. Keep things simple and don’t ask for grand themes or save the world schemes.

6. Ask for a selection of graded papers from freshman and senior years. See what the progression has been and try to decide if this student will continue to progress at the college level. Of course, this has a lot to do with the school and would be somewhat idiosyncratic, but it might encourage students, teachers, and schools to be more comprehensive in what they do.

7. Actively fight the idea that colleges, and by extension, educations, can be ranked or that there is an “absolute value” of educational quality at the undergraduate level. Stop avoiding the obvious: Most students can get a good education wherever they go as long as they have good teachers, a willing attitude, and reasonable backgrounds. The idea that there is only one school for a person is as silly as the romantic idea that there’s only one other person in the world who can make us happy. In the same vein, colleges should more prominently state that it is the STUDENT, not the INSTITUTION, who determines his or her success. Institutional self-interest in the form of marketing (which foregrounds the uniqueness of the institution and its offerings) needs to be balanced publicly with no bull statements about the universality of education and the fact that any decent college can provide what any other college does. What differ most are the essentials: location, history, finances, and so on. Good people teach and learn everywhere. Admit it! (Think about it this way: If Harvard turns down 90% of its applicants, and 80% of THOSE are qualified to attend, they have to go somewhere, right? So clearly there are intelligent students everywhere–leaving aside how one measures “intelligence as a function of admission to Harvard!–the same being true for all the PhDs Harvard turns out or hires who can’t get tenure there. They have to go somewhere! They may be at the University of Kansas or East Podunk College…You don’t need to be at Harvard to get a Harvard education (again, leaving aside the idea that a Harvard education is somehow the yardstick by which we measure such things.)

Easier said than done? Perhaps. And how will admission people know who the “good” applicants are? There’s still plenty of information to be had, including teacher and counselor recommendations, which will take on added importance as the daily life of the student becomes more significant. This will certainly fly in the face of the almost inevitable march to increasing mechanization of the admission process. It will have to be more, not less, “holistic” and individualized. It will require more human interaction, especially with students who don’t normally see college recruiters, and it will have to happen earlier than the end of junior or the beginning of senior year. Colleges will have to help schools prepare their students for the rigors of education (not necessarily for the delights of the individual institution) starting freshman year. Surely some of the billions being raised for college coffers these days could be spent on greater outreach to students and their schools, and to spread the message that it’s not what’s in the college but what’s in the student that counts.

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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