Here’s my down and dirty advice for last-minute shoppers, er, essay writers: https://goo.gl/5LOVuW
Here’s my down and dirty advice for last-minute shoppers, er, essay writers: https://goo.gl/5LOVuW
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Several years ago the principal of an elementary charter school in a blighted Chicago neighborhood asked me to teach his staff about college admission. The school was decorated with college banners and posters; the teachers hung their alma mater’s insignia outside their doors and in their classrooms; there was a “sweatshirt day” where adults wore their schools’ clothing. Cadres of students took the names of colleges and universities to identify themselves.
The school was committed to making sure its students got to college, the principal told me. He was especially proud that they took their second graders on a trip to the Northwestern University campus. This last fact took me aback. Second graders? On a college trip? I couldn’t imagine what second graders of any background would gain from a campus visit except a day off of schools and an opportunity to gambol on Northwestern’s beautiful lakefront. I certainly couldn’t see them sitting still for the standard admission office presentation or for anything more than a brief hello from some students and lunch in Norris Center.
I challenged the principal: What was the idea behind the trip? He told me students from underserved backgrounds needed to see what they could have if they worked hard in school. I countered that second graders don’t really have the capacity to think and plan that far ahead about anything, much less college. It would be hard for them to understand or remember the connection. We need to show them what they could have, he repeated.
As I thought about my presentation to the school’s staff, I kept turning the trip over in my head. Although it would be a fun day for the kids (who wouldn’t want to spend time on NU’s campus?), it seemed developmentally inappropriate to expose them to college this way, expecting them to internalize it. I decided to bring the message closer to grade school level.
Luckily, I have a collection of stuffed mascots I’ve collected from various institutions over the years: several bears, a moose, a duck, and some mythical creatures as well. Normally, they huddle on a shelf in my house; the day of the presentation I piled them in a bag and brought them along.
Elementary school kids love stories and animals; they love to act; they love to pretend; their imaginations are at their unfiltered peak. I suggested that, instead of abstractly signifying about their alma maters, teachers”adopt” their mascots and have the kids write stories about them, take care of them, and learn about them. What’s a badger (Bucky Badger of the University of Wisconsin)?
What’s a wolverine (the University of Michigan’s mascot)? What’s a banana slug (UC–Santa Cruz’s symbol)? Adopting these creatures would provide a connection to college as the school desired, and serve as sources for plenty of appropriate activities important to elementary school students’ development.
In the years since, I’ve heard about more and more grade schools in poor neighborhoods taking their students to visit college campuses hoping to inspire them to do well in school. I contend this is wasted effort based on a faulty premise. Schools should focus on making sure their students are academically prepared for high school and college, not conjuring up a distant Oz that counts on the glitter of college to somehow spark intellectual achievement.
The impulse for these early campus visits comes, I believe, from the desire to replicate upper middle-class behavior in underserved students, assuming it will rub off on them and make them amenable to attending college. Privileged children grow up surrounded by college, the thinking goes. From early days, they’re taken to their parents’ alumni events; see college sweatshirts, class rings, highball glasses, and diplomas in the house; and hear the conversations of highly educated adults. The child absorbs the qi of these things, assumes college is in his or her future, and works hard to attain it. By adopting the talismans of privilege, poor kids can be transformed into college-bound students.
But merely mapping upper middle-class behaviors and outlooks onto students, especially very young students from poor neighborhoods mistakes the map for the thing. It neglects meaning in favor of appearance, while also being developmentally inappropriate. The behavior of the privileged is coupled with good schools, enrichment opportunities, numerous activities, and cultivation of a child’s talents and abilities. Lacking that depth, underserved students exposed only to images of college see only the surface, not the substance that will be required of them to succeed. This is a tragedy for the very students these schools claim to serve.
The way to prepare students from any background for successful post-secondary careers whether they attend college or not is to educate them. Any other tactic is an empty promise. There’s no getting around this fact. It’s wrong to bring second graders to a college campus if they’re not being given the kinds of academic and imaginative experiences that will inspire them to keep learning. It’s wrong to spend massive amounts of time and effort on test prep at the expense of being well taught in the first place. It’s wrong to teach poor students that performing menial tasks, obeying instructions, filling in forms, and learning how to make eye contact are somehow “education” when in reality they are more about pacification and control.
I recently tutored a high school senior completing an online history course for graduation credit. I don’t know his background except that he is a soft spoken African American currently living away from his home. In the course of an hour we went through four screens, one each on Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley, and the Andes. No reasons were offered for why they were in the same unit; no principle of historical analysis was given. Each screen had about three paragraphs of the most elementary information, provided no context and not a single thing of interest. (The brief sentences on the Phoenicians, for examples didn’t mention that they gave us our alphabet.) All he had to do was copy what was on the screen into a notebook and then complete a few simple quizzes that he could answer just by looking at what he’d copied.
Would you blame anyone in these circumstances for thinking that continuing his education would be a dreary waste of time? Or that what he was doing somehow was “being educated?” My “tutoring” consisted mainly of trying to enliven the deadness of the course with stories about the Egyptians, the Inca, and Phoenicians, which he enjoyed and found interesting, but which didn’t matter to his grade. He was never asked to engage with an idea or offer a hypothesis. I could tell many similar stories, as well.
However bright he may be, his mind is still a tabula rasa, no matter how many times he’s been exposed to college campuses or cheerleaders for a college education. Whether or not he has attending college in his mind, it’ll be a hollow achievement without having been properly educated in the first place. Imposing upper middle-class expectations onto underserved students, if that in itself is even desirable, requires also providing the substance that underlies those expectations. (The lack of education is the primary, although not the only, reason so many underserved students feel lost when they get to college.) That includes helping them develop the talents and capacities that will serve them throughout their lives, not just those that will “get them into college.” Celebrating form over substance leads to a dead end no matter what the eventual outcome.
Read Frank Bruni’s Oct. 30 column about the chaos of college rankings HERE. Not incidentally, I was very pleased to be featured. I’d be happy to hear reactions.
Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) have introduced a bill in Congress that would “encourage” colleges to provide greater access for underserved (poor, first generation-college, minority) students. It should serve as a warning, especially to the wealthiest colleges, that they need to act systemically, not individually, to provide all qualified students access to post-secondary education.
In the past I’ve advocated that wealthy colleges and universities work together to help less well-endowed institutions fund poor students. The Coons-Isakson bill should prod them to take the high road before being made to do so. It would be a win-win for all parties involved.
I’ve made the case in my forbes.com blog, which you can access HERE.