The New York Times reports that over recent years there’s been a steady escalation of concern about the admissions process at the most revered, selective American colleges. And little by little, those colleges have made tweaks.
But I get the thrilling sense that something bigger is about to give.
The best evidence is a report to be released on Wednesday. I received an advance copy. Titled “Turning the Tide,” it’s the work primarily of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, though scores of educators — including the presidents and deans of admission at many of the country’s elite institutions of higher education — contributed to or endorsed it. Top administrators from Yale, M.I.T. and the University of Michigan are scheduled to participate in a news conference at which it’s unveiled.
“Turning the Tide” sagely reflects on what’s wrong with admissions and rightly calls for a revolution, including specific suggestions. It could make a real difference not just because it has widespread backing but also because it nails the way in which society in general — and children in particular — are badly served by the status quo.
Focused on certain markers and metrics, the admissions process warps the values of students drawn into a competitive frenzy. It jeopardizes their mental health. And it fails to include — and identify the potential in — enough kids from less privileged backgrounds.
“It’s really time to say ‘enough,’ stop wringing our hands and figure out some collective action,” Richard Weissbourd, a senior lecturer at Harvard’s education school, told me. “It’s a pivot point.”
Weissbourd is one of the directors of the school’s Making Caring Common project, which produced the report. He’s also the author of research that was one motivation for it — specifically, a survey of more than 10,000 middle- and high-school students that asked them what mattered most: high individual achievement, happiness or caring for others. Only 22 percent said caring for others.
The new report contemplates how the admissions process contributes to that psychology and how it might be changed. Some of those alterations would simultaneously level the playing field for kids applying to college from less advantaged backgrounds.
“Colleges spend a huge sum each year sending signals that influence the behavior of millions of students,” the report notes. Why not rethink those signals to reshape that behavior?
The report recommends less emphasis on standardized test scores, which largely correlate with family income.
It asks colleges to send a clear message that admissions officers won’t be impressed by more than a few Advanced Placement courses. Poorer high schools aren’t as likely to offer A.P. courses, and a heavy load of them is often cited as a culprit in sleep deprivation, anxiety and depression among students at richer schools.
The report also suggests that colleges discourage manic résumé padding by accepting information on a sharply limited number of extracurricular activities; that they better use essays and references to figure out which students’ community-service projects are heartfelt and which are merely window dressing; and that they give full due to the family obligations and part-time work that some underprivileged kids take on. Stephen Farmer, the vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, praised the report as consistent with his school’s desire “to be humbler and more alert to the many ways in which people can stake a claim on a place here.”
He said that the school had already, for example, downgraded the importance of “A.P. everything,” which doesn’t necessarily measure true ability or intellectual hunger.
“Just making people jump through hoops because we can — we don’t want to do that,” he told me, especially when some hoops are so arbitrary that “we might as well be admitting these people on the basis of their height or the size of their neck.”
“Turning the Tide” follows other reexaminations of the admissions process. A growing number of colleges have made the SAT or ACT optional. And late last year, more than 80 colleges, including all eight in the Ivy League, announced the formation of the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success, which is developing a website and application process intended in part to diversify student bodies.
Colleges are becoming more conscious of their roles — too frequently neglected — in social mobility. They’re recognizing how many admissions measures favor students from affluent families.
They’re realizing that many kids admitted into top schools are emotional wrecks or slavish adherents to soulless scripts that forbid the exploration of genuine passions. And they’re acknowledging the extent to which the admissions process has contributed to this.
But they still need to stop filling so much of each freshman class with specially tagged legacy cases and athletes and to quit worrying about rankings like those of U.S. News and World Report. Only then will the tide fully turn.