Getting the Most Out of College @ Hobson’s

Hi Everyone– I am currently a featured blogger on Hobson’s website. You can read the entry at https://goo.gl/zjkaWq. I write about getting the most out of your college experience…

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Posted in college counseling

Cooke Foundation’s Executive Director Responds to “Elitism” Entry

After my last entry, Elitism in the Name of Access, David Egner, the communications consultant at the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, contacted me and asked if the Foundation’s Executive Director, Harold O. Levy, could respond as a guest writer. I am happy to oblige.

Mr. Levy’s distinguished career includes being Chancellor of the New York City public school system, the largest school system in the U.S, from 2000-2002. He has also held leadership roles as a corporate attorney, venture capital investor and as a manager in the financial services industry. I’d like to thank him for taking the time to address the topic of educational access and equity here as well as in many other forums. It is one we both agree is critically important.

My next entry will be a follow-up to Mr. Levy’s.

COOKE FOUNDATION SUPPORTS EQUAL EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITY FOR ALL

By Harold O. Levy

I am responding to the post headlined “Elitism in the Name of Access” and to its criticism of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, where I serve as executive director.

I am a strong believer that all children – from those with learning difficulties up to those with the greatest intellectual abilities – deserve an equal opportunity to get an education that meets their needs, enables them to reach their full potential and prepares them for adult life. For some students this means a vocational or technical education. For others it means a college education and graduate school at very expensive educational institutions.

As the former schools chancellor in New York City, I dedicated myself to helping students having the greatest difficulties in school and to reducing the high school dropout rate. That was the right thing to do. But like many others, I assumed that the brightest students – those who some call “gifted” – would do just fine in K-12 and go on to college, with scholarships when needed, because of their high abilities.

I was wrong. Recent research has conclusively demonstrated that the highest-achieving students are often bored, sometimes develop disciplinary problems, and many times underperform if they do not get the benefit of challenging classes, teachers trained in meeting their needs, and guidance on finding the best academic path and preparing for college.

For children from low-income families these problems are compounded. Their parents are unable to afford to live in neighborhoods with the best public schools, and can’t afford the many enrichment experiences and preparation for college admission tests that more affluent parents can provide.

Some of these students struggle with homelessness and hunger. Some must work long hours while in school to help support their parents, their siblings, or spouses and children of their own. For many, scholarships and loans are not enough to cover their educational and living expenses in college.

It’s a false choice to say we must give only one type of student the most appropriate education. We must provide it to them all.

Jack Kent Cooke, a great entrepreneur and sports team owner, left much of his fortune to create the foundation that bears his name specifically to meet the needs of high-achieving students from low-income families. This was not “elitist.” It was simply designed to meet an unmet need. Mr. Cooke, who had to drop out of high school during the Great Depression to help support his struggling family, was determined to help young people in similar circumstances get the education he never had the chance to receive many years ago.

With an endowment now worth about $640 million thanks to Mr. Cooke’s great gift, we are proud to have provided over $152 million in scholarships to nearly 2,200 students from 8th grade through graduate school, along with comprehensive counseling and other support services in the past 16 years. The foundation has also awarded over $90 million in grants to organizations that serve such students.

Even if we gave away every penny in the endowment in one year, which would mean the foundation would have to shut down and never help another student, we couldn’t fund the education of millions of low-income students in the United States. But we certainly support the work of government at all levels, colleges and other nonprofits to provide funds and programs needed to give students of all academic abilities – particularly those with financial need – the most appropriate education.

Educating our children must be a national effort. No one foundation or group of foundations can fund it all. At the Cooke Foundation we will continue to join with others with the goal of making equal educational opportunity a reality for every child. By doing this, we help transform young lives and build a better future for our nation and the world.

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Elitism in the Name of Access

Correction: I carelessly misstated the size of the Cooke Foundation’s endowment in billions of dollars instead of millions. It was not my intent to do so and I apologize for the egregious error. I have corrected the amounts below. Also, the market value of the endowment has changed; I have also made that correction. Thanks to David Egner of the Cooke Foundation for pointing this error out. I should have been more careful.

Providing access to college for all students who desire it has long been a worthy goal for schools, organizations, and colleges themselves. Why wouldn’t it be? We want our young people to be as prepared as possible for the challenges that continually face us as the future inexorably bears down upon up.

Most efforts in this area focus on finding a relatively tiny proportion of students, the “diamonds in the rough” deemed college ready but lacking the resources to follow through. They may have no guidance counselor, lack access to information, or simply lack the money they’ll need to attend. As worthy as these efforts are (at Chicago Scholars, I created and led very successful workshops, handbooks and other materials and activities for these students, their parents, and their mentors) they unintentionally create a significant divide in the educational world of these students.

Many organizations and even schools focus on the “gifted and talented” students who may thrive despite poor conditions. They are identified as early as possible and introduced to mentors, advisors, and programs that will help them get through school and to college. Many require that students have certain minimum GPAs and test scores to participate, and of course, students have to be made aware of the programs to apply. So the restrictions of college admission are transplanted to these organizations, once again limiting access while attempting to broaden it.

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Still from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis with the Maiden from the underground world pleading for its children.

Other students who may suffer the consequences of poor educational and social conditions more severely are by default left behind. There’s no telling how many students from underserved schools could benefit even from the encouragement to do well if they are identified early enough, regardless of whether they are “gifted and talented” or not. In the name of “access” and with all best intentions, many organizations practice an early form of social sorting as early as eighth grade.

In setting up his system of public education in Virginia, Thomas Jefferson proposed a strict hierarchy, beginning in grammar school. From there, the winnowing process would continue:

Of the boys thus sent in any one year, trial is to be made at the grammar schools one or two years, and the best genius of the whole selected, and continued six years, and the residue dismissed. By this means twenty of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually, and be instructed, at the public expence, so far as the grammar schools go.

Thomas Jefferson on Public Education, Part 1   by George H. Smith

Jefferson made no bones about where public monies should be spent: on those who showed the most promise and had best achieved at their schools. Those who could pass the “trial” would be rewarded by being educated at public expense. The “residue” would be left on the rubbish heap, presumably to become laborers, farmers, and so on (an odd image for a man who considered farming and agriculture to be the backbone of American life and morality).

Many years later, the term “talented tenth” referred to the goal of establishing black colleges in the South to train black teachers and elites. W. E. B. DuBois adopted the term to describe the likelihood of one in ten black men (women were not yet included)

becoming leaders of their race in the world, through methods such as continuing their education, writing books, or becoming directly involved in social change.

It was important to encourage recently freed slaves and their descendants to aspire to leadership positions to lead the race out of its former servitude. The “talented tenth” was a goal, not a limit.

Even at the time, however, Henry Lyman Morehouse, the white liberal who coined the term in 1896 and for whom Morehouse College is named, realized the phrase reeked of elitism and sought to mitigate it. On the PBS website is his reservation about the term:

Obviously concerned that his argument would appear to be elitist, which it nakedly and unapologetically was — like Du Bois’ elaboration of it seven years later — Morehouse was quick to add that he was not unmindful of the importance of the contributions of the other so-called “nine-tenths”: “Without disparagement of faithful men of moderate abilities, it may be said that in all ages the mighty impulses that have propelled a people onward in their progressive career, have proceeded from a few gifted souls … men of thoroughly disciplined minds, of sharpened perceptive faculties, trained to analyze and to generalize; men of well-balanced judgments and power of clear and forceful statement.” The talented tenth man, Morehouse concludes, “is an uncrowned king in his sphere.”

We can argue that Jefferson, Morehouse, and DuBois saw the positives of this culling as far outweighing the negatives of consigning the less talented 90% of the population to using their “moderate abilities” as well as they could. Especially at a time when African Americans were beginning to emerge from slavery, it was important to find those who could lead their fellows into the higher reaches of American society, no matter the difficulties.

However, as the United States has essentially reached a point of universal education (no matter how inequitably it may be delivered) the emphasis on providing a “talented tenth” with specific advantages while letting the rest fend for themselves ultimately isn’t sustainable for the country as a whole. It provides lifeboats to specific individuals while the rest drown in dark, freezing waters. The systemic problems that damage every child, in other words, are left unaddressed.

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Still from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The privileged cavort in a garden of earthly delights.

Unfortunately, even the best intentioned organizations still rely on a “talented tenth” ideology to address these concerns instead of challenging the system itself. A recent article in the Orlando Sentinel headlined “We Can’t Let Any Gifted Kids Slip Through The Cracks” outlines the efforts of the National Association for Gifted Children to “change minds and attitudes, change policies, and change practices when it comes to supporting gifted learners.”

One of its efforts revolves around creating a “Giftedness Knows No Boundaries” campaign that “will shine a light on gifted and talented children, and be a precursor to changing policies and practices, all of which will ensure these children are discovered, challenged and given the support they need as they strive to reach their personal best.” Presumably these lucky children will be “raked from the rubbish” and provided with educations befitting their genius, while the rest will have to make do with what they have. But why should an effort like this be only about those identified as “gifted and talented”? And if giftedness knows no bounds, why limit your search?

One organization that does plenty of raking is the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, “a private, independent foundation established in 2000 to advance the education of exceptionally promising students who have financial need.” Its $640 million endowment enables it to choose not just the talented 10th but the talented 10th of a 10th as it sifts through thousands of applications from hopeful but underserved students each year. Over its history the Foundation reports it has awarded more than $152 million to nearly 2,200 high-achieving students from low-income families.

This number sounds (and is) very impressive. For individual students who win the award (after an extensive selection process that makes Harvard look like an open admission college), it’s a platinum lifeboat, with the possibility of paying all college and even graduate school expenses as well as other education-related costs. For the rest, though, the flotsam will have to do.

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Lithograph of the Titanic sinking.

(Some simple math shows that over 16 years the Foundation has accepted an average of 138 students per year from thousands of applicants, spending an average of $69,000 per student for an average outlay per year of $9,500,000. Quite luxurious for the lucky ones. To be fair, the Foundation does other things as well, but in light of its endowment, this expenditure seems both paltry and underutilized.)

In a recent article on the website the74million, Harold O. Levy, the executive director of the Cooke Foundation, repeats all the old saws about how schools need to get better, while lamenting the under-funding of education. “We must figure out a way to do better, because failing to meet our responsibility to children today will cause irreparable harm to them and our nation far into the future.” This remarkably musty observation coming from the head of a foundation with two-thirds of a billion dollars in endowment funds dedicated to supporting only a tiny fraction of students is supremely ironic.

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Still from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis showing the leader of the upper world where the privileged few live.

He lectures schools as if they were hoarding funds while stating the obvious:

Schools need to increase spending to get the best teachers, hold down class sizes so students get the individual attention they need, hire more and better-trained counselors, get the up-to-date books and supplies students require, run year-round classes for the weakest students and improve or replace aging school buildings.

And while he tells states and localities to “bite the bullet and raise taxes or find funds elsewhere in their budgets” for school funding, he surely knows these efforts have been consistently voted down or been stymied in just about every one of those areas. In Chicago, where I live, public schools are being starved by the state (which also has entered its second budget-less year under its billionaire Republican governor) and the city, which has had to raise taxes significantly just to pay into unhonored pension funds for public employees, including teachers. Mr. Levy, once the chancellor of the New York City School system, surely knows better than to repeat bromides that were cliches 30 years ago, like “We must figure out a way to do better, because failing to meet our responsibility to children today will cause irreparable harm to them and our nation far into the future.” Well, what do you know! And yet, here we are.

The problem, ultimately, isn’t that we’re not finding enough of the talented tenth to lift from the “rubbish heap,” but that we have consigned so many of our youth to such a huge rubbish heap to begin with. Providing lifeboats for the talented, the “gritty,” and the purely lucky, while terrific for those individuals, still leaves their peers floating in the darkness of an Arctic night clinging to whatever hope they can find. Sanctimonious reiterations about the terrible condition of education, especially when you have the resources to do more about it, reflect a lack of willingness to attack the problems at the root.

Much of that would require  political activity prohibited to foundations; however, funding research and even looking for ways to build luxury liners instead of expensive lifeboats so more lives could be saved through education and support, might be better ways to address the problems we face. Without the political will, however, the left out 90% will continue to sink. Relying on discovering just the “talented tenth” each year only prolongs most students’ agony while doing nothing to ameliorate it.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in college access, college counseling, higher education, underserved students | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

What’s Up At Forbes.com

Here’s my down and dirty advice for last-minute shoppers, er, essay writers: https://goo.gl/5LOVuW

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Posted in college admission, college application essays, college counseling, college essay advice | Tagged , ,

What Colleges Could Do About College Admission, Part 3

Most of the changes being advocated regarding college admission focus on students, families, schools, and organizations changing their ways. “Relax!” say colleges. “Do your best and don’t worry about the results.” Students are enjoined to be “nicer” and more sincere in their approach to other, their activities, and their communities. Impossible and contradictory advice gets spilled everywhere: “Be yourself! Be authentic! Stop using outsiders to plan your lives and massage your applications. We want you to present your best self. You don’t have to be perfect! We want curious, energetic students, not robots!” The exhortations go on and on. iu-2

Despite this concern, what hasn’t changed are the rewards for inauthentic and stressful behaviors, especially among so-called elite colleges and universities. Institutions still prize numbers over “kindness” or “authenticity,” glitter over rough diamonds. Students who perhaps have sacrificed some grades for genuine community service, even if they’re capable of doing good work in college, are not likely to be admitted, despite having energy and curiosity.

Institutions outside of the “elite” are, thankfully, much more willing to enroll the kinds of students reports extol, partly out of necessity, but also because they are more modest in their ambitions. They exist to teach and also know that most students will simply go on to decent careers the better for having been to college.

“Elite” institutions can’t afford to lose their aura of exceptionality, and therefore take far fewer chances on those they accept. It’s important to them that everyone believe he or she can become a captain of industry or a brilliant surgeon if they attend, even though that’s more the exception than the rule. But beyond that small circle, institutions (except perhaps those whose status envy compels them to trying breaking into the club by, say, joining a coalition of elite institutions) are freer to see the wider sphere of student achievement and potential.

The idea that any student willing to work hard, study, and be involved in campus activities could and should be admitted to college has been overrun by the institutions’ compulsion to be number one, to be “nationally ranked,” or to simply be “better” than others. Colleges want to become universities so they add a graduate program or two (like a local airport becoming “international” by adding a weekly flight to Ottawa). Colleges want to improve their numbers so they award extravagant merit scholarships to overachievers who don’t really need the money.

Left out are those students who have done honest work without gimmicks. That includes most underserved students who may be plenty smart but who should have received more help and attention as they are going through school in the first place. Ideally, they would have had great teachers and inspirational activities; instead, poorer schools imitate the behaviors of wealthy schools while ignoring the substance and context of their own communities. They create a shell of achievement while ignoring the importance of creating and nurturing an inner life of intellectual and emotional curiosity so important to ongoing learning and development.

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Everyone suffers to some extent in this scenario. Students are driven to achieve more and more while learning and enjoying life less and less; schools feel compelled to ratchet up their academic offerings even if they’re not really prepared to do so; teachers are pressured to make sure students are prepared for testing that means nothing and destroys any possibility of joyful learning; parents feel they have no choice but to play along.

In a nutshell, the burden of re-humanizing the college admission process rests on colleges and universities, not those aspiring to get into them. Studies and reports lamenting stress, overachievement, and inauthenticity in students shift the blame to those least able to make necessary changes. Institutions that don’t recognize this situation are complicit in its existence. Here are my final suggestions for how change might happen.

  • Reconsider admission criteria in order to admit a broader sample of those who desire to be educated with those who have simply worked to be admitted.
    • Why: To create a livelier mix of students in each class; to emphasize the mission of educating students instead of collecting them; to break out of the straitjacket of rewarding only past accomplishments rather than taking a chance on potential; to be more discerning of students outside of the mainstream who might be original thinkers and achievers; to reward those who have genuinely taken good chances in their lives; to take the pressure off students who feel they must overachieve to gain admission; to lessen the chances of “burnout” as early as freshman year.
    • Why Not: Too risky of the school’s reputation; easier to recognize already certified “winners” than to bet on uncertain potential; faculty expect graduate student acolytes, not run of the mill students; harder to recognize “potential;” don’t have to; trustee expectations too daunting;
  • Take a good hard look at how the emphasis on “achievement” (by which I mean “overachievement”) has distorted the high school curriculum and the behavior of schools and students, then work with schools to change it.
    • Why: High schools try harder to get students into college than they do to educate them; students resist trying new things for fear of failing; students are pushed too hard by schools and parents; students end up enrolled in courses they may not be ready for in order to “stand out”; students arrive at college critically unprepared for college work because of overload; increasing disconnect between what high schools do and what colleges expect; more and more resources devoted to “support” rather than ongoing development; increasing mental and physical health issues as a result of pressures to succeed.
    • Why Not: Don’t have to; far too complicated an issue; difficult for colleges to act together to establish more humane standards; current system seems to work well enough despite complaints; easier to put responsibility on high schools and students.
  • Re-examine institution’s own commitment to education, community, and the life of the mind in relation to how you present yourself to potential students, how you work with high schools, and how you spend your money.
    • Why: Revitalizing the idea of education for long-term personal development as well as career success makes it more intrinsically valuable; emphasizing that learning can be difficult and even upsetting can prepare students better for the world; helping high schools by working more closely with them could raise educational standards; providing a three-dimensional instead of a one-dimensional education enables students to be more fully involved in life; it can enable and justify admitting a wider range of students, all of whom have the same commitment if not necessarily the same background.
    • Why Not: Too much time and money spent emphasizing the fun of college; “learning” is a tough sell; customers, er, students, are attracted to new dorms, athletic facilities, computerized classrooms, and other splashy big ticket items, they don’t want boring human interactions; we don’t have the resources to do anything but take what we need from what’s being produced; we’re in the entertainment business now.

Colleges and universities need to take responsibility for the world they’ve created. Although I’m writing this series in a blog about college admission, it’s really up to the institutions as a whole to take a critical look at themselves. Admission officers, contrary to popular belief, do not make admission policy; they carry it out. Therefore, it’s the duty of presidents, provosts, chancellors, and trustees to do the work that needs to be done.

The worlds of college and high school, as well as of privileged and non-privileged students, have become seriously misaligned. Aligning them properly so everyone has a decent chance at success must begin with those in power recognizing their responsibility, their duty, and their ability to change the dynamic. It will require an effort similar to turning a battleship, but I believe it can be done. I hope for all of our sakes that it will be.

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Posted in college access, college admission, college counseling, education, high school, higher education | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

What Colleges Could Do About College Admission, Part 2

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. iu-2

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. club line
  • 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. number one (first)
    • 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.

471829854With 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.

Posted in admission practices, college admission, higher education | Tagged , | 2 Comments

What Colleges Could Do About College Admission, Part 1

There’s plenty not to like about the way college admission has developed over the years. More due dates, more essays, more ways to cheat, more silly rankings, and more complexity in general make everyone’s lives crazily complex at a time when high school seniors should be focusing on their schoolwork and activities.

Everyone complains about the stress: It undermines senior year in particular, but school in general as well. It turns privileged kids into graceless competitors and underprivileged kids into also-rans before they even get started (except for those lucky enough to land in a college-bound lifeboat). Although most American colleges accept a majority of their applicants, the imbalances inherent in the admission process are practically guaranteed to produce the appearance of unfair results. We need a better way.

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But what do we mean by a “better” college admission process? Like the workings of a clock, each element of the process has its function, and changing one thing throws everything else off. But we still need to consider whether there might be alternatives.

For me, a “better”college admission process would

  • simultaneously make it easier for every student to apply but also harder to do so without careful thought.
  • revert to being a sideline instead of the main event in a student’s life.
  • enable colleges and universities to stop playing games with numbers and relieve them of always trying to second guess applicants’ intentions.
  • showcase students’ actual achievement instead of relying on significantly flawed abstract methods of measuring it.
  • encourage more positive interactions between high schools and post-secondary institutions for the common goal of supporting solid educational values while ensuring that every student who wants to can go to college.

While high schools can encourage students to look beyond name schools or “take it easy” when preparing for tests, only colleges and universities themselves can make the changes that would enable students to be students again. Reforms and importunings like “Turning the Tide,” are doomed to failure because they ignore one key element: the “prize” of college admission itself.

We’ve developed a cultish obsession with “college” that goes beyond its being simply a way to get from high school to career or even to being a more educated person. It’s become a status emblem, a mark of “arrival,” and a supposed guarantee for attaining the good life. Fear of falling behind has made families even more desperate to get their children into “elite” schools, while non-privileged students have to take their chances with whatever scraps of information they get. It’s not really fair to blame students and parents for their obsession when the stakes are so high. iur

By participating in a system that allocates the best resources to the tiniest number of students, institutions of higher education have created this desperation among college-going groups. Colleges and universities could stem the tide if they acknowledged their systemic responsibility to society instead of trying to maintain their individual positions in an artificial hierarchy. Doing so disadvantages all applicants, creating a destructive dog-eat-dog application world. But steps can be taken to mitigate the damage.

Unfortunately, taking these steps requires immense determination and a willingness to lead that colleges don’t seem to have. They are highly sensitive to what other institutions are doing, adopting a “you go first” attitude for most admission reforms. Years ago, for example, Harvard eliminated its Early Decision option because it seemed unfair; when no peer institutions followed, they re instituted it.

Below are several actions colleges and universities could take to improve the college admission process in many dimensions. I’ve given my reasons for including them, and the reasons colleges probably won’t or can’t undertake them. In my next post I’ll list more.

  1. Stop using standardized testing as an admission requirement.
    • Why: Study after study has shown that these tests indicate family income as much as (or more than) they do “aptitude” or whatever abstract concept is supposedly being measured; they clearly disadvantage students from lower economic strata; many institutions have already discovered that they predict performance no better than high school GPA; they are incredibly expensive, especially for underserved students; they have created a massive test prep industry that sucks time from real learning and money from everywhere; they distort the educational process by teaching that a number can define a student’s capacity for learning, curiosity, or dedication to doing well in school; good scores have become goals for many schools that can least afford to pursue them over real teaching and learning; schools that have stopped using them have found no disadvantages in doing so; many students with low scores are actually very good students; instead of a sideline to the application process they’ve become absurdly central, with privileged students taking them multiple times in pursuit of better scores; they can often offer contradictory evidence when compared to a student’s GPA and other characteristics; they lead to the elevation of certain academic subjects at the expense of others; they require immense amounts of teachers’ and high school administrators’ time; they encourage cheating at every level; they are overvalued; they are used in ways that were never intended; recent revisions have revealed significant errors in construction that have not been corrected.
    • Why Not: It’s too easy to rely on scores to make distinctions among applicants, especially for institutions with thousands of them; they give the impression that “science” is involved, which reassures people that admission decisions are “accurate” and “fair;” they’ve been a part of the admission landscape for so long they seem like integral and immutable parts of it; when they’re low enough, they provide a reasonable sounding excuse to reject a student who might other wise be admissible; colleges and the testing agencies are too closely entwined to uncouple; they have become the basis for institutional evaluations; there’s no real pressure to give them up despite the reasons to do so; scores look good on profiles.
  2. Return to using institution-specific applications instead of “common” forms.
    • Why: The extra effort required to complete several institutional applications can reassure colleges that a student has put some thought into applying, which addresses the “Is this a serious candidate?” question; students would have to think more carefully about applying; it’s likely to decrease the number of institutions students apply to, easing the pressure on both high school counselors and admission offices, giving them more time to process applications; colleges could tailor their applications to fit their personalities; a growing number of competing “common” application systems creates needlessly overlapping and confusing methods for applying (soon students will need a “meta-common application” to sort them all, a Travelocity for applicants). iu-2
    • Why Not: It’s likely to decrease the number of applications; the Common Application, for example, is a great tool for students, making it easier for them to apply to multiple institutions; being part of a common list may attract a wider variety of students; lower status institutions may benefit from association with higher status institutions on a common list; it’s relatively easy to participate in a common application.
  3. Establish a National Essay Day. Applicants would have a morning to write application essays on selected topics and in formats (argumentative, critical, narrative, etc.) they’ve learned in school, from material provided that day.
    • Why: Eliminates the proliferation of essay writing “help” that tilts the playing field toward those who can afford to spend the time and money getting it; there’s widespread uncertainty about the authenticity of application essays, so a supervised writing session with topics provided that day would ensure it; honest students who write their own essays with no or minimal help are disadvantaged by those whose essays are doctored; anxiety over the essays is second only to that for standardized tests, resulting in ceaseless writing, rewriting, and more rewriting that interferes with other work; students may also put them off to the last minute; a one-time session (with multiple dates) would relieve students of the seemingly ceaseless trudge through application season; it could revive the teaching of essay writing in the classroom throughout school years since students would be expected to write in different modes; the work would genuinely be the student’s, regardless of background; it would require the ability to think on one’s feet; more interesting questions could be developed across different topics, with each essay mode represented by multiple questions distributed randomly at the time of the exam; similar to AP exams but without need for grading; could use passages from documents, readings, etc. to make responses more relevant; would reinforce the importance of teaching writing and careful reading in general; essays would simply be sent to applicants’ colleges for addition to their files, allowing for differential decisions across institutions; it’s “one and done” so students can get on with their lives.
    • Why Not: Logistics of administering, reviewing, and distributing results (the essays themselves) to applicants’ colleges; months of anxiety crammed into one morning or afternoon; probably expensive from every direction; still would be a big gap between privileged and non-privileged students regarding teaching of writing;

Each of these suggestions and the ones to come in Part 2 put the burden on colleges and universities to address the problems currently besetting the college application process. As I have written before, too often the onus of creating a better college application system falls on students, schools, and families instead of where it really belongs: the institutions that benefit from it.

It’s not enough to dictate that students be”nicer” or pay more attention in class or do more community service; institutions have to reward that behavior as well if they’re serious about it. That goes for any other qualities they desire to see in their eventual students. Entrenched habits are hard to break, of course, but many schools have gone test-optional; students take exams and go through interviews for some major scholarships; and we’re always trying to level the playing field for applicants regardless of their backgrounds.

Despite what we may think, the college application process can change if there’s enough will to do so. And it can even become more supportive of students’ lives in high school. Instead of being a massive hurdle, it can perhaps be more of a bridge. To get there, colleges need to take bold steps to realize more fully the ideals they espouse.

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