In Part 1 and in other posts on this site, I’ve defined what I think a “better” college admission process is and emphasized that colleges and universities have the responsibility of reforming it. Only these institutions are capable of making it more humane and responsive to social and educational realities current students face. Only these institutions can temper the zero-sum virus that infects students and families through the media and their own efforts. Only they can mitigate the damage to students the process does, ironically, in the name of getting a better education.
The college admission process has helped make high school a relentless slog for ambitious privileged students and a dismal morass of confusion for the ambitious non-privileged. Many non-privileged students may never even realize they could have had the opportunity to go to college at all. Without a concerted, cooperative effort among colleges and universities, the situation will only get worse. Congress is considering legislation requiring colleges to expand access to higher education, a sure sign that these institutions must act before they are forced to do so.
With these ideas in mind, I continue my list of suggested reforms that could make the college admission process a path of genuine access to post-secondary education for all students instead of an empty slogan.
- Value through acceptances evidence of curiosity and intellectual desire at least as much as past achievement or numbers.
- Why: Better aligns with colleges’ true mission to “developing smartness” instead of “acquiring smart students;” acknowledges that every student is a work in progress, not a finished product; allows for greater latitude in whom to accept, which means greater diversity; relieves students of burden to do more than they may be able to handle in high school; rewards students who dedicate themselves to worthy projects even if they sacrifice some GPA to do so; energizes classrooms and labs with students eager to learn instead of exhausted burned out overachievers; opens the way for more students with different learning styles and backgrounds to come together on a campus; encourages professors to see their classes differently.
- Why Not: Too hard to measure; allows for too much latitude in admission decisions; too hard to predict what students might actually do once on campus; too hard to justify to outsiders who might question decisions; too risky overall.
- End special interest admits (legacies, development cases, athletics, President’s choices, etc.).
- Why: Usually tilted toward already privileged populations; admits often don’t meet institution’s stated criteria; makes “access” for all problematic by reserving spaces; contributes to appearance of special privileges for the few; does not necessarily end in hoped for result (new building, donations, etc.); creates cynicism in applicant pool.
- Why Not: Long history of admitting special interests hard to break; need to keep teams, orchestras, etc. populated; sometimes works; can rationalize as being a relatively small part of a class; can be good students regardless of privilege or assessed ability; hate to see a potential windfall go somewhere else; too risky.
- End the use of Early Decision programs.
- Why: ED mostly of value to highly privileged families; some highly competitive institutions take as much as 50 percent of their classes ED, severely limiting space for other candidates; increases admission anxiety while also requiring a commitment many students/families are not really ready to make; an acceptance so early in the school year makes it harder for students to stay on track until the end of the year, despite warnings.
- Why Not: Having 50 percent of a class committed to the institution in December enables admission deans to sleep better; one for one admit rate eliminates guessing about who will come; only used by a handful of highly competitive institutions anyway; ED applicants more likely to be full or almost full-pay students; eases the burden of reading applications to have different deadlines.
- Refuse to participate in ranking schemes.
- Why: Each ranking based on arbitrary and unreliable categories; don’t really measure anything that’s useful to potential students; easy for institutions to manipulate if they decide to; based on inputs, not results; they try to measure imponderables; fail to account for unpredictable human element of education; more valuable to companies that produce them than to colleges themselves; encourage “ranking envy” and competition among institutions for higher spots; promote status anxiety among students and families; returns focus to what institution actually does; makes a statement about what institution really values; work against idea of “access” by promoting exclusivity instead; doesn’t provide much information that institutions can use to improve.
- Why Not: Good annual publicity if institution is highly ranked or moves up in rankings; potential for moving up, leading to more applications; pressure from trustees to move up each year; uncertainty about whether peer institutions would follow suit; so well-entrenched it’s hard to say no; not that hard to participate; can use good rankings in publications to attract students.
I have no illusions that these recommendations would be easy to implement or even be considered. A constellation of other factors surrounds each one, making it difficult to take any steps that upset the apple cart.
In the case of the first item on this list, a commitment to accept students on a broader basis than one built primarily on GPA and test scores would require a great deal of thinking, planning, and recalibrating, especially at very highly selective colleges. But this would be well in line with recommendations advocated by Harvard’s “Turning the Tide” report, the difference being that the report puts the burden on students, while I’m putting the burden on colleges and universities.
Although we seldom acknowledge it, college admission is an entirely arbitrary process. Its forms and functions have become ingrained through time and custom, not law or inevitability. It has been built on continuous practice and refinement over the years, mostly to good effect, although its history is not without periods of exclusion and prejudice. Admission offices carry out the policies of their institutions, not vice versa, so any changes would require wide-ranging discussions with trustees, presidents, development and alumni offices, and so on. But even to consider these changes provides an opportunity to have those conversations.
With a growing concern for enabling non-privileged but capable students to have access to a college education, it is more and more important for post-secondary institutions to consider doing things differently. Much of the discussion has focused on what these students can and should do to get into college; more attention should be turned to how institutions can act to achieve these socially and culturally valuable goals. Only their concerted efforts will really effect the changes even they profess to support.
I welcome your comments. The third entry in this series will contain my final initial suggestions. Look for it next week. Also visit my Forbes.com blog for more general advice and observations about the college process.