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. 

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.

About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
This entry was posted in admission practices, college admission, higher education and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What Colleges Could Do About College Admission, Part 2

  1. Karen says:

    HI Will,
    You have made very valid points with your articles. For there to be real change we need to take money out of the admissions process. With college prep classes, private college councillors, the unlimited ACT, SAT exams and unlimited college applications - the whole college process is a revenue raising exercise.
    Stop the unsolicited advertising, we have a 3 foot pile of expensive brochures from colleges my son would never consider. Colleges also need to be more forthcoming about who they will accept. Colleges reps are telling my son to apply to colleges that have no interest in admitting him, just to boost their statistics.
    I would like to see an honest indicator of student outcomes. Do students feel they got value for money? Did they learn? Where they able to get internships, research positions, training experience? Where they employed in their field of study, or realistic college degree level job upon graduation? With college costing up to $70k per year, this is more important to me than the college’s reputation. I want my son to learn, but also to get a job that will allow him a career.
    I feel after going through the process, I could write an essay about how to reform the system. Some suggestions of yours I agree with and some I disagree, but I don’t foresee any changes soon.


    • Will Dix says:

      Hi Karen- Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I’ll have some more recommendations in my final entry in this series next week. A few weeks ago on my Forbes.com blog I suggested that the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) would be a much better yardstick for families considering college than any of the rankings. It asks students how much they study, how often they see professors, and other things regarding what actually happens at their college. I also noted in another entry which colleges have not participated in the survey, and it turns out many of them are top-ranked schools. I would love to see NSSE become the standard for families.
      I’m not sanguine about major changes either, but I think the conversation needs to take place.


I'd be glad to hear your thoughts and reactions to this post. Let me know what you think.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s