The recent report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education entitled “Turning the Tide” suggests that the college admission process provides a way to create students who are “more generous and humane” instead of being overly competitive and overly concerned with “personal success.” It postulates a way of evaluating students based on their concern for others, involvement in their communities, and their “authenticity.” The report blames “today’s culture” as well as “admissions offices, guidance counselors, parents and many other stakeholders” for the problem of super-competitiveness that causes students to feel depressed, drained, worthless, and worse, then suggests that changing the way students are evaluated for admission can change who they are.
Produced primarily with the support of high-status college and universities, many of whom, it must be said, have caused and encouraged this student over-competitiveness in the first place, it “advances a new, widely shared vision of college admissions that seeks to respond to this deeply concerning problem.” As such, it does not include or refer to the many excellent colleges and universities in the United States that do not require their applicants to overload themselves with classes and activities in an effort to claw their way into the ranks of the “elite.” It also means that we are talking about a relatively tiny slice of the college admission world that unfortunately commands the largest share of public attention.
The college admission process desperately needs reform, but not by jamming it full of demands that students be nicer or more “authentic.” The report substitutes one thing for another with a net result more problematic than what’s now there. And while it nods to a concern for underserved students, its outlook and recommendations are almost exclusively for the privileged.
The first and most complex assumption of the report is that the college admission process itself can and should expressly affect students’ behavior. Change an essay or change what’s required on the application and you will drive students to change their focus the way you’d like them to. In this report’s case, the emphasis is on making students better, more aware persons. Its premise is that
“college admissions can motivate high school students to contribute to others and their communities in more authentic and meaningful ways that promote in them genuine investment in the collective good and deeper understanding of and respect for others.”
In simpler terms, if you want to be admitted to High-Status U., you’d better show what an altruist you are. Once that happens, the report suggests, the pressure on students to achieve just for themselves will be alleviated, which will ultimately lead to a peaceful, edenic campus once enrolled.
The report also claims that it “demonstrates how the admission process can more accurately and meaningfully assess young people’s contributions to others and to their communities…” This condition is seen to be critical not only to alleviating stress for students but also to preparing them for college. It sees the process as being able to assess the depth, sincerity, and effect of students’ other-directed activities, making that assessment an essential part of one’s admissibility.
The third element of the report posits that
“A healthy and fair admissions process cannot simply encourage students to devote more time to others: It needs simultaneously to reward those who demonstrate true citizenship, deflate undue academic performance pressure and redefine achievement in ways that create greater equity and access for economically diverse students.”
In addition to encouraging greater involvement with the world outside oneself, the report suggests that rewards are essential to make that involvement happen. In the case of college applications, one can assume that at least one of those rewards would be admission to college.
Almost immediately the “Tide” is undone by its fundamental misunderstanding of the college admission process and college admission in general, especially in relation to the high-status colleges supporting it. It also completely ignores the actual process of character formation, assuming that it can be accomplished by the college admission process instead of through responsible upbringing, clear and moral teaching, and ongoing positive adult support. Finally, it assumes that college admission officers can somehow acquire an omniscience that makes them able to assess “Authentic, Meaningful Experiences” undertaken by applicants. Reifying the process as if it were an actor instead of a conduit from one point to another brings all these assumptions into question, and significantly undermines the idea of a “kinder, gentler” process.
Colleges and universities, as well as society at large, have spent many years and millions of dollars creating the market for higher education, solidifying its place as a key, if not the key, to “getting ahead,” however defined. Being accepted to High-Status U., for example, has long been thought to open the door to a life of success. As more and more students buy into that idea, more apply, leading to more competition, lower acceptance rates, and higher status for the institution. Each year, colleges crow about their increased number of applications and the ultimate brilliance of the incoming freshman class (always “our brightest ever”). This naturally makes each succeeding class of high school seniors exceedingly nervous. The goal for potential applicants during the admission process is not to be better people, but to be accepted to an environment that promises them the world. Admission to high-status colleges is competition for an increasingly hard to reach prize, not a charity auction. Students must do what they need to do in the moment to grab it, so if they have to fake authenticity, that is what they will do.
The college admission process is not a character development experience and isn’t meant to be. Although college counselors take care to help students form ideas about their futures and assess their strengths, students’ basic personality traits are already fairly well formed. College admission is, or should be, a process whereby students can present their credentials to schools in which they are interested and then be evaluated accordingly. It is a conduit, not a transformer. Although it has become more and more like kudzu along a Southern highway as it overwhelms high schools students, it should by rights be contained to a student’s senior year and the application should be a clear picture of a student’s accomplishments. If students have not been taught and learned to be good citizens before their senior year in high school, the college application process will do nothing to transform them, and it’s sadly naive to assume otherwise. Should colleges adopt this “kinder, gentler” attitude toward admission, they will simply be awash in essays that will give them what they want to hear.
The report does a lot of weak “encouraging,” “recommending,” and “suggesting” ways the admission process should get students to behave “in ways that are more authentic and meaningful and that promote in them greater appreciation of and commitment to others…” It tells us that
“college admissions could-and should-do more to generate positive changes in young people’s ethical commitments. In fact, it seems that most high school students interpret colleges as being narrowly focused on their achievement…not on their sense of responsibility for others or their communities.”
But that, in fact, is what the college admission process is designed to do. It has exceeded its boundaries over the years, but it enables college admission officers to assess whether or not a student has the background and academic foundation to be successful at their institution. While it can contain many indicators of a student’s personality and outlook (points seemingly overlooked in “Tide”) it is a historical document, not a diagnosis or predictor of future “goodness,” compassion, or societal contributions. This misunderstanding leads to several embarrassing and sometimes puzzling recommendations that would have admission officers behaving like the empaths in the film “Minority Report” who are able to see the actions of individuals about to commit crimes:
“Admission offices should continually seek to better assess whether students are kind, generous, honest, fair and attuned to those who are struggling in their daily lives. How fair and honest, for example, are students in their daily interactions?”
“We also encourage admissions offices to pilot and evaluate various strategies for assessing and weighing ethical engagement, sharing the results widely”
How should admission offices monitor the fairness and honesty of students’ daily interactions? Perhaps there could be an app like the one insurance companies use to monitor drivers’ behavior; but even if it’s used, it’s not able to measure the sincerity of the driver’s commitment to safety. In the report’s enthusiasm for inculcating moral and ethical qualities through changes in the admission process (which includes suggesting nine different essays asking students to evaluate their own “authentic” interactions, for example), it also suggests admission offices all but abandon requirements for admission, a condition that should especially concern the most high-status institutions:
“It’s vital that the admissions process consider this lack of access [some students have to AP courses, for example] an opportunity in assessing students and not create a threshold for academic activities and courses that some students will not be able to cross.”
Essentially, the report suggests trading obsession over grades and activities for obsession with doing good in the world. Asking more about the latter on applications is supposed to send a signal of what colleges want, which is all well and good. But demanding authenticity guarantees artificiality, as anyone who’s ever been commanded to “just be yourself” will know. No matter how optimistic and generous admission officers may be when they look at an application filled with good works and self-sacrifice, there is no way accurately to assess the applicant’s sincerity, nor should admission officers be in the business of mind reading. In fact, there have been books on the market for years that show students how to appear to be Mother Teresa while scheming like Montgomery Burns.
The most egregious element of the “Turning the Tide” report is that it blames the victim-the prospective candidate-for his or her condition, while allowing the perpetrator to bask in self-righteousness. The recommendations at the end of the report are a thin gruel of “suggestions” for applicants to “consider” and which are neither “new” or “challenging.” They are in fact valueless without an equal change in colleges’ approach to the college admission process. For high school counselors, who have been banging their heads against a brick wall about these issues for years, these recommendations can only demonstrate how far from reality their college admission counterparts are.
The final recommendations in the “Tide” report come under the heading “Recommendations for Reducing Undue Achievement Pressure, Redefining Achievement, and Leveling the Playing Field for Economically Diverse Students.”** The recommendations themselves
“seek to both strengthen the prospects of economically diverse students and to decelerate the excessive academic performance pressure that can be destructive to students in better off schools.”
With these tenets in mind, let’s look at each one.
Recommendation #1: Prioritizing Quality-Not Quantity-of Activities.
“Admission offices should clearly indicate that numerous extracurricular activities or long ‘brag sheets’ do not increase students’ chances of admission. Applications should state plainly both that students should feel no pressure to note more than two or three substantive extracurricular activities and that students should focus on the qualitative aspects of their participation….Admissions offices should define students’ potential for achievement in terms of the depth of their intellectual and ethical engagement and potential, not in terms of the number of their accomplishments.”
This is not a new element in college applications. Students are already asked to list the activities where they spend the most time and energy, decent proxies for “quality,” that is, commitment. Counselors discourage students from listing every badge and trophy, and college admission officers are acutely aware of paperhangers who try to list their third grade spelling bee championship as an achievement. But stating that “students should feel no pressure” here simply ignores the reality of competitive college admission. If I have two really deep commitments, which now must include not only any extracurriculars but also my legacy of compassion for my fellow man, how will I look against someone who has four? And if the college to which I am applying has an admission rate of 4.9 percent, am I not locked into this pressure?
And when should a student plan for all this quality and depth? Will the college application become a “founding document” for high school freshmen? (Will an “online portfolio” serve the purpose as another sponsor of the report has suggested?) When should he or she take up the mantle of community organizer or humanitarian along with all the other duties required in high school? Students’ interests change constantly, never more than in adolescence; this recommendation assumes a level of sophistication very few, if any, high school students have but which is perfectly appropriate for their age.
Recommendation #2: Awareness of Overloading on AP/IB Courses
“Admissions offices should convey to students that taking large numbers of AP or IB courses per year is often not as valuable as sustained achievement in limited number of areas…Admissions offices should encourage students to take courses that are appropriate for their academic development and emphasize that taking large numbers of AP, IB, honors, or college courses is not right for everyone. Even the most advanced students may benefit from avoiding course ‘overload’ and devoting more time for scholarly work that allows unstructured reflection and encourages the development of intellectual curiosity.”
This is yet another puzzling recommendation that belies the reality of highly selective college admission. As long as thousands or tens of thousands of students are competing for hundreds of places, applicants have no choice but to find ways to stand out. In academics, this means AP/IB/honors, and as many as possible. Simply telling students to “relax” and enjoy their courses comforts no one, least of all the admission officer forced to say that. When decision time comes, the student who hasn’t taken full advantage of the high school curriculum, no matter how bright he or she might be, is doomed. No hyper-competitive college’s admission officer will ever tell a student, “Don’t take all those AP courses! Just take the ones you like. It’ll all work out in the end.” And no student panting to attend that school would believe him.
This recommendation seems to suggest that “even the most advanced students” should take time to stop and smell the roses, but undercuts itself with the oxymoronic phrase “scholarly work that allows unstructured reflection.” Worse, it puts the cart before the horse, assuming that this uncertain state will lead to “intellectual curiosity,” when it’s more likely that intellectual curiosity will lead to unstructured exploration.
Recommendation #3: Discourage ‘Overcoaching’
Another embarrassingly weak and ultimately pointless recommendation suggests that
“Admissions offices should discourage students and parents from seeking inappropriate help to prepare applications and warn students that applications that are ‘overcoached’ can be transparent and detrimental to admission.”
When you are guarding a cave of immense riches, everyone is going to look for the “open sesame” secret. It is both naive and foolish to assume that a discouraging word from a college admission office will cut into the massive market that exists for application help, “inappropriate” or otherwise. Some parents are willing to pay private coaches tens of thousands of dollars to groom their children for the likes of Yale or Stanford from middle school; it’s hardly likely others will shy away from getting help to polish an application at the moment its needed. Students are also left with the feeling that while they may be honest and do everything themselves, there are those who pay professionals to do the heavy lifting anyway.
This recommendation is especially embarrassing because it strives to make the whole thing a “learning experience” for everyone involved:
“Admission officers should consider inviting students (and families) to reflect on the ethical challenges they faced during the application process…The college application could include an essay question asking the student to describe and discuss the ethical challenges they experienced during the college application process.”
Most students, especially underserved students unfamiliar with the college admission process, do not have to worry about this situation. They are some of the most honest and sincere people one can encounter; they are as fearful of admission officers as adults are of the IRS. But what is the point of this question anyway? It’s like the question asked of foreign travelers entering the country: “Do you plan to overthrow the government of the United States?” You’d have to be a fool or insane to answer yes. And even if a student were to take the question seriously and write (yet another) essay for his or her application, what would it matter and how would its “authenticity” be evaluated?
Recommendation #4: Options for Reducing Test Pressure
College counselors and many colleges themselves have been begging for this for years even as testing mania expands into elementary school. Many colleges and some universities are test optional, some offering alternatives to those who would prefer not to report their scores. Some schools don’t ask for testing at all. Over the last thirty years, studies have shown over and over again that standardized testing (specifically SAT/ACT) adds little to the predictive value of high school GPA alone and is more indicative of zip code/income than ability. A 20-year longitudinal study at Bates College showed no difference in performance between those who submitted scores and those who did not.
Yet the assumption that getting a “good” score is the primary aspect of a college application prevails, despite what colleges say. While well-equipped high schools and high school students can afford expensive test prep sessions and practice in addition to their regular classes, underserved students find that their academic classes and free time are often invaded by test prep drills that drive out genuine learning. Schools serving low income students push themselves to raise test scores instead of investing in good teaching, thereby putting those students further behind their better-resourced peers.
The recommendation suggests several options for reducing test pressure:
“…making these tests optional, clearly describing to applicants how much these tests ‘count’ and how they are considered in the admissions process, and discouraging students from taking an admissions test more than twice. Colleges and testing companies should convey that taking the test more than twice is very unlikely to significantly improve students’ scores.”
Except for “making these tests optional,” the rest of the suggestions are the weakest actions a college or university could take, and ones that no one will believe given the competitiveness of the institutions who might suggest them.
Since testing companies make their money from test prep, it seems even less likely that they would advocate taking the test only once or twice, either. Even making the tests optional, while a step in the right direction, still puts students in a dilemma: Whatever their scores, what will not submitting them mean? And what about the kids who do submit them?
The burden still falls on the applicant to decide what to do, and without having a complete picture of the admission landscape, the testing decision remains just another pressure point.
Recommendation #5: Expanding Students’ Thinking about “Good” Colleges
“Admissions officers and guidance counselors and other stakeholders should challenge the misconception that there are only a handful of excellent colleges and that only a handful of colleges create networks that are vital to job success. It is incumbent on parents to underline this misconception as well.”
This recommendation both ignores the college market of today and insults the college counselors who almost universally try to get their students to think broadly about college options and look for “fit” instead of prestige. Colleges and universities have spent millions of dollars on their own marketing and campus development in order to attract the “best” students. They have submitted to external rankings like USNews’s, even though they are arbitrary at best, for a chance to be seen as one of the nation’s best in order to attract more students and lower their acceptance rates. The likelihood of their handing out brochures for other “just as good” colleges at information sessions is simply unrealistic.
College counselors have been saying this for years; they aim for “fit,” not prestige. But they are often ignored as well-resourced students and families fight for entry into the high-status schools that seem to guarantee the “networks” (not “education,” according to the recommendation) that are “vital to job success.” Even many community organizations succumb to the temptation, often trying to get their students, however poorly prepared for college-level work, to apply to high-status schools. The currently popular concept of “undermatching,” (now being challenged) has only exacerbated this situation.
“Turning the Tide” presents a vision that is neither new nor likely to be effective in creating a more humane college admission process. Using the process as a way to change students’ behavior instead of streamlining and clarifying it as a method of evaluation makes it intrusive, heavy-handed, and significantly more complex than it already is. We would all like everyone to be more concerned about others and more open-minded, but those qualities come from families of origin, community values, schools, and the associations like Scouts, the YM/YWCA and others, not from a college application process.
The report has seriously mistaken the purpose of a college application, assuming it can “motivate high school students to contribute to others” and inspire “authenticity.” But an application is a performance, a summary of an applicant’s life and achievements, presented in the best light possible. It is also a plea for acceptance. It should not, and in fact, cannot motivate students who have already created their lives, for better or worse, up to the point when they are applying to college.
In Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes, Alfie Kohn offers a clear response to the assumptions in this report. In the chapter “Bribes for Behavior” he writes
“…I hear….a desire for children to be self-reliant and responsible but also socially skilled and caring, capable of surviving and succeeding in life yet willing to question and think in a creative and critical manner, confident and possessed of an unshakable faith in their own worth while still being open to criticism and new ideas.”
This seems like a fair interpretation of what the “Tides” report is trying to achieve though manipulating the college admission process. However, we must remember that the process is attached to a very substantial reward, which is where things break down. Kohn writes
“The unsettling news is that rewards and punishments are worthless at best, and destructive at worst, for helping children develop such values and skills. What rewards and punishments do produce is temporary compliance. They buy us obedience. If that’s what we mean when we say they “work,” then yes, they work wonders.”
In completing college applications, students are looking for the reward of college admission. They are, understandably, acting in their self interest and will do what needs to be done to achieve their goal. (I’m not suggesting that all students cheat on their applications or get ‘overcoached,’ just that they are presenting an ideal, not a real self.) Kohn understands the situation:
“No behavioral manipulation ever helped a child develop a commitment to becoming a caring and responsible person. No reward for doing something we approve of ever gave a child a reason for continuing to act that way when there was no longer any reward to be gained by doing so.”
Throughout the report, the “college admissions process” is referred to as if it were a sentient being, one that can “encourage other types of community engagement” or “send the message…that these types of family contributions are highly valued.” But an ideal, low-pressure admission process should be a conduit, not an actor; it should be as transparent as possible, allowing applicants to present themselves as they would like to be seen. Presenting it as an object lesson for how to “be” in the world in order to be accepted by (mostly) high-status institutions makes it even more demanding than it already is and as Kohn notes, is doomed to fail. Ultimately, it simply trades emphasis on overloading with courses and activities for overloading with caring and empathy.
What should be proposed is recommendations for colleges that more directly address the issues. Until colleges really “walk the walk” instead of just mouthing bromides, the admission process will only get worse. Here are some recommendations for colleges and universities that really could help alleviate the pressures on students:
#1. Stop participating in the rankings games. Go cold turkey and reconsider where your best efforts can be made. Instead of trying to be “nationally ranked” put your resources to work being excellent where you are. Level the playing field by not playing the game, enabling great but little known colleges to emerge from the shadows. This would also lessen the need to attract and bid up the price of star professors, keeping the overall salaries affordable for smaller colleges.
#2 Eliminate standardized testing as an element of admission. It has outlived its usefulness and merely gums up the work that should be happening in schools. No one believes you when you say they don’t really count all that much. They factor too significantly in your ratings game, among other things. Take the worry out of applicants’ hands and at the same time relieve their high schools of the pressure as well. Then they can go back to teaching real subjects.
#3 Reduce your mass marketing footprint to focus on students who truly are likely candidates for admission, not just numbers to lower future acceptance rates. Be candid with students who are not likely to be accepted before they apply.
#4 Eliminate Early Decision programs or commit to accepting only 10-15% of a class under ED. Many high-status institutions now take as much as 50% of their classes ED, which favors wealthy, white, well-served students. Make the competition for admission genuinely open to all. (Which begs the question, Why do institutions that already have excellent yield rates even need ED?)
#5 Instead of “suggesting” things, which leaves the student with the burden of making the decision, revise the list of requirements for the application and stick to them. For example: Report no more than three activities (perhaps more under “extracurriculars” and “community/family service); no more than 3-4 AP courses, with no college credit awarded; if the SAT or ACT are still required, insist that it be taken only once; since the application essay is the most “coached” element of an application, establish an “essay day” where students gather nationally or regionally to write their application essay during a 4-5 hour monitored session, with the topic unknown until then.
#6 Eliminate from applications anything that is not directly relevant to the students’ record of achievement and performance. No marketing questions, no “why do you love us?” essays. If you have done your recruiting properly, you shouldn’t need to dig too deep to decide if an applicant really wants you or not. And the risk should be yours, not the student’s.
#7 Establish a permanent council composed of college admission officers and college counselors from representative institutions around the country to periodically review admission procedures and issues, especially those affecting underserved students. It would come together periodically to keep informed of developments in the field of college admission as seen from either side. (This would not dictate how individual institutions make decisions.)
#8 Bring school heads and college presidents together with counselors and admission officers so they have a greater understanding of what college admission is all about and has become. School heads often see college admission as a way to promote their own schools and college presidents often don’t see beyond the numbers.
The college admission process needs reform, but simply shifting the formula won’t make it any fairer or more accessible. Colleges have to do their own thinking about how they treat applicants and how they operate in the market before any real changes can be made. They also need to listen to the experienced college counselors who have worked for years trying for fairness while being either ignored or steamrolled by colleges operating in their own best interests while pretending to be concerned for all.
**The term “economically diverse student” is incorrect; one student can’t really be economically diverse just as you can’t be partially pregnant. He or she is either poor or rich or middle class. A group of students can be diverse, however, which is what I assume the writers really mean.