Thinking Admission

This week I attended a two-day conference at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. It was called “Rethinking Admission” and had an exceptional slate of speakers, from Yale’s dean of admission to some leading sociologists, economists, and others who have studied or thought seriously about the phenomenon we call college admission. Bringing the perspective of other fields to the discussion of college admission is exactly the right idea, but as much as I enjoyed the event, it fell well short of “rethinking” admission, settling instead for thinking more intently about what already exists without really rethinking or reimagining it.

Rather than reviewing the whole two days, I’ll focus on a few things and recommend you click on the link above if you’d like to see conference details, including podcasts and photos. The two best presentations were by Scott Highhouse, Professor of Industrial-Organizational Psychology at Bowling Green State University, and Bruce Walker, Vice Provost and Director of Admission at UT–Austin. The other speakers brought depth of expertise and experience as well as passion and drive, for the most part, to the conference, but, again, presentations focused mostly on where admission IS, not really where it’s going or should be going.

An initial session on the SAT (and by extension ACT) focused on whether or not it really predicts college success well enough to be used in admission. Heavy doses of statistics were provided, and surprisingly there was some support for the tests as accurate and necessary tools for college admission. Most valuable here were results of extensive studies that at least provided data for discussions that can rise above anecdote and personal views.

However, as far as I’m concerned, the effective debate is no longer interesting or useful. I oppose use of the tests but believe there’s a much more compelling reason to eliminate them. As we have seen over the years, test prep has become a larger and larger phenomenon, eating up time and energy that could be better used elsewhere. When this was mostly the province of the overprivileged, it seemed crass but tolerable, but what we’re finding now is that schools serving students who need education most–first-generation and minority students–have succumbed to a felt need to prep their students in order to compete with their better-off peers.

It is well-known that high stakes testing has many negative effects on students and teachers, who are pressured to perform (I include NCLB standards in this group). With scores as the perceived gateway to college, many of these underserved schools are taking vast amounts of time and money to prep kids for the tests, on which they generally don’t do so well anyway. Time that could be spent learning something is wasted and everyone learns to hate school because it’s an endless round of memorization and robotic performance. What’s particularly ironic is that colleges often forgive poor test scores of talented minority students as long as everything else looks promising, so all that test prep is doubly wasted. (As a former admission officer at Amherst College I can tell you that scores are important unless they’re not.)

Prof. Highhouse challenged our assumption that “holistic review” of applications is somehow more accurate than simply running the numbers and making a decision. He cited studies showing that hiring decisions made “holistically” or, what seems closer to his intent, by hunch, are nearly always inaccurate. In fact, when added to statistical decisions regarding hiring, the “holistic” factors actually lessened the accuracy of the decision. Although he didn’t link these findings specifically to college admission, the implications were clear.

Frustratingly, however, the implications of this view were never discussed. It’s highly unlikely colleges would ever give up holistic review, but what are its defects and can they or should they be corrected? Is there a new method of reviewing applications being implied? And what is greater accuracy in college admission, anyway? Most people would define that as admitting only the people who “deserve” to be admitted, but as others mentioned, that term, along with “merit,” has enormous elasticity.

The speaker closest to suggesting an actual way of rethinking admission was Bruce Walker of the University of Texas at Austin. He spoke about Texas’s Top 10% program and demonstrated that, when given a chance, good students from high schools all over the map, when given the chance, can do well in college. He had studied the GPAs of students from poor & wealthy families and from poor to excellent high schools and showed us how these students, when properly challenged, can truly rise to the occasion. Skeptics of the program should look at the data and rethink how to challenge students even earlier so they can be even better in the future.

Walker’s real contribution to the discussion was his observation that colleges need to “deliver social capital to families who have never had it before.” He spent some time talking about the efforts of colleges to reach affluent students who are likely to enroll versus their efforts regarding poor students. He said that colleges should start thinking more about these latter students but not simply by showering them with recruitment information. They need to think about how to bring poor and underserved students into the world of college so they can be motivated throughout high school and prepared for college socially as well as academically. In terms of “rethinking” college admission, this was probably the most important presentation, but, again, there was far too little time to actually do the rethinking. Perhaps it can be a touchstone for a future conference.

In my own work I talk a lot about creating the social and cultural capital students need for college success. It has to start early for first-generation students because they have not been surrounded by “college” the way their better-off peers have been. So Walker’s observations were particularly exciting. But to carry them out colleges will have to think backwards as well as forwards. They will have to reach back to middle school to help counselors and teachers motivate students, instead of just waiting around for those students to reach senior year in high school and them skimming off whoever has made it to the top. This would indeed be a major rethinking of the college admission process.

Thinking backwards also means considering what effects testing and other admission policies have on schools’ curricula, family and student behavior, and a host of other phenomena. As I mentioned above, high stakes tests as entrance requirements have actually come to stifle real education, the opposite of what one would want. Adopting this view of things instead of simply looking out for the institution’s self-interest would be more labor intensive and expensive, but in the end institutions would be served by having a stronger pool of students to draw from when the time came.

Ultimately, while I believe the conference failed to live up to the idea of rethinking admission, it did serve to bring together people from different arenas who can have useful and important things to say about the process. I believe that, for better or worse, the college admission process has become a real locus for American culture and it deserves to be studied in greater depth by sociologists, psychologists, economists, and others. With luck, the Wake Forest conference will spark more and deeper discussions to come.


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 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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One Response to Thinking Admission

  1. Willard, Love your comments here and on the NACAC listserv. In terms of “social capital”, have you read Buell and Kralovec’s “The End of Homework”? They present some pretty compelling arguments that social capital resulting in improved school performance for disadvantaged kids is best accomplished by ensuring the parents can make a living wage at their jobs. The problem is so complex. I admire individuals like you who continue to point out that the emperor has no clothes…Sally McGregor


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