Do Standardized Tests Encourage More Low-income Students to Go to College? Yes. And No.

A long time ago, some enrollment consultant told me something: Students who visit campus enroll at a higher rate than those who do not.  I already knew this, of course, as do most people who do admissions for ten minutes.

But then, he came up with this gem: “So the goal of your admissions efforts should be to get as many students to visit campus as possible.”  Even then (this was probably 1984 or so), before I had a graduate degree, and after only a couple of undergraduate courses in statistics, I told him he was crazy: Visiting campus doesn’t cause students to enroll; visiting campus is a strong signal of propensity to enroll.  If you randomly selected a hundred students from three states away and bused them to campus against their will, it’s unlikely you’d get one to enroll, let alone the 68 we might have predicted (remember those yield rates when students applied to three colleges?)

It was the first thing that popped into my mind when I heard the latest suggestion that all students should be required to take the SAT or ACT in high school, because, when more students take the test, more students–especially those who are largely invisible to colleges–go to college.

Third-grade me says, “duh.”

Of course, post hoc, ergo propter hoc does not always lead to a faulty conclusion, but in this case, I’d suggest there is even less causality here than meets the eye, even though the paper doesn’t explicitly suggest cause and effect.  However, I’m not sure the average state legislator or member of the local school board has the perspective or the training to make these fine distinctions.  The New York Times has now run with it, and it’s likely to be in the inbox of large numbers of policy makers on Monday morning.

(Whenever I hear the word “selective” in these discussions about getting more students to colleges, it reminds me of the ridiculous work on “undermatching,” that I’ve written about before. People tend to focus on the things that are important to them, and if you went to a selective university, it’s apparently impossible for you to envision how not everyone necessarily wants that for themselves.)

But I digress.

If you work in admissions, you have almost certainly already figured out why kids who take a college entrance exam who otherwise might not have done so end up going to college.  It’s not, I’d suggest, the taking of the test: It’s the fact that the student’s name gets sold over and over to colleges who are searching for students.  The colleges pick up the slack in the process, because many of them believe low-income students can’t be ruled out because of income.  Additionally, the budgets of most colleges and universities are tuition driven, and against decreasing populations of high school graduates,  they are generally eager to generate enrollment to keep themselves operating.

If more students who take the test go to college, it’s probably because dozens, if not hundreds, of colleges rush in to tell them they can go to college, and that they should consider it, and that aid can make it possible.  That’s a powerful message.

If you don’t believe it, talk to any high school counselor about the institutions that like to generate lots of easily denied applications from students just to be more selective. Admissions offices who infrequently admit students with SATs below 1400 coddle and encourage those with scores of 1100, and no amount of discouragement can persuade the students they don’t have a chance.  In the end, the students become grist for the college rejection mill, but the point is, this information barrage works.

So in some sense, requiring students to take the ACT or SAT might be a good faux solution to the larger problem, but it brings with it problems and costs people overlook.  And mostly, I think, it fuels our mis-directed obsession with standardized tests as a measure of something important.  We’ve had lots of lawsuits in admissions that could have been avoided if the public didn’t believe that an SAT was an “academic qualification.”

Study after study has shown that the ACT and SAT add virtually nothing beyond what is already in the file to the predictive equation  when trying to understand who will do well in college. At my institution, tests uniquely explain about 2% of the variance in first-year performance, a figure similar to many other studies.

(An aside here: People like tests for a lot of reasons, as Robert Sternberg has pointed out. To his list, I’d add the very low rate of false positives on the tests.  That is, if you score very well on a test, you clearly have a certain kind of intelligence: The kind that allows you to pick the “right” answer from the four given.  College, at its best, is not like this; neither is life, where you sometimes have to figure out the answer without knowing whether the question is right. Tests alone do predict something, that’s only because tests effectively amplify the signal of high school performance; once you account for high school GPA, saying the same thing again doesn’t make the outcome much clearer.)

The unintended costs of requiring tests would be high, though: More money and instructional time spent on test prep, more teaching to college admissions tests, more benchmarking districts on tests that still measure mostly wealth and ethnicity.  The districts and schools with lower percentages of test takers end up looking the worst (regression to the mean), which kicks off all sorts of shitstorms (a phrase, I’ve discovered, even the Germans have adapted from English given the perfect metaphorical image it creates.) And worst of all, it creates more opportunities for the testing agencies to get their tentacles even farther into curriculum development at the middle-, and even elementary-school levels. The relationship between curriculum development and testing is a dubious one, at best.

I like to remind everyone that no one appointed these companies to do this on our behalf; no government agency appointed them.  They’ve largely done this on their own. These are private companies who develop marginally effective testing services they sell to the public, and who then sell the information they collect to colleges.

Given the state of politics and education, I’m not sure we can actually believe that states are interested in increasing college attendance rates; the party in charge right now rose to power by winning bigly with people who didn’t graduate from college.  But even if you take a charitable view of our representatives, capacity at selective state flagships is unlikely to increase, making this a zero sum game.

Assuming for the sake of argument that states want more students to go to college, they can set up systems to get the student names and reasonable estimates of academic performance to the colleges, who will do this at no cost, or even negative costs, to the states. But don’t try to accomplish this by making your students take a test that is largely useless, and then allow the testing agencies to profit from the sale of the names.

There are willing partners in college attainment out there, and they are, of course, the ones who do the educating.  Increasing attainment doesn’t require testing for more, and certainly not for all.

Our Annual Entitlement Ritual

It happens every year:

First, someone announces that a student, or several students, defied the odds and gained admission into some combination (or all) of the Ivy League universities, plus (sometimes) Stanford or other high profile institutions.  Usually, these students are students of color, and/or children of immigrants.

Second, the media pick it up.  Regular, good old-fashioned people say, “Wow, that’s great!” Regular, good-old fashioned racists say, “Affirmative action is the only reason this student has this success! It’s unfair to White people everywhere, and when is our suffering going to end?”

This post is not about that.

This post is about what happens in our profession, among people who should know better: Among people who can always be expected to stand up for students, except, it seems, on these particular occasions.

This post is about the third thing. So,

Third, people in the profession accuse the student of “Trophy hunting.”  If you’re like most people, you don’t know–but can probably figure out–what this is about.  The accusation is that students are simply attempting to accumulate accolades for themselves.

It’s bullshit.  For a lot of reasons.

First, most of the people making these accusations see the world through their own lens: One where every student has access to good college counseling. One where every student knows why someone who loves Dartmouth, for instance, might not be happy at Brown. One where students have been talking to parents over dinner since they were four years old about going to college, and especially, about going to the right college <wink wink>.

“How could they make such an admissions faux pas?” they scream in unison. “Don’t these students know that one simply does not apply to every Ivy?” You can almost see Thurston Howell III and Lovie getting light headed.  “What were they thinking?” they say, pressing the backs of their hands against their foreheads, while they grab onto something to help prop themselves up.

These are the same people, by the way, who can’t wait to publish their school profiles each year, showing the whole world just how many of their students from the previous graduating class enrolled at–and sometimes just how many were admitted to–The Big 9. This is done to ensure that those colleges feel good about admitting students in the coming year, of course.  When you got a good thing, you keep it going if you know what’s good for you, as Tony Soprano might have said.

But the perception that a student should have been counseled out of this behavior, of course, begs the question.  The majority of students, I’d suggest, don’t have someone showing them the ropes of applying to college and navigating the game.  This is especially true for some (not all) of the students in these stories, many of whom are children of immigrants who work in blue collar jobs, where they don’t rub elbows with America’s prep school graduates who could have taught them how to raise their children.

And do I need to remind you that these students are going through the process for the first time? In the high stakes admissions game, the student gets to play just once.  When someone hits it out of the park the first time up, especially if they do it on their own, we should congratulate them, not criticize them.  We should also remember, of course, that for every one who manages to get the press, there are thousands who completely struck out.  The last time I looked, the Ivy League institutions counted a quarter of a million rejections in just a single year.  They’d fill several newspapers.  Problem is, they’re not news.

The second line of criticism comes from those who point out (duh) that you can only attend one institution, so why bother applying to eight or even nine?  This, I’d remind you, comes from the same people who complain about how impossible it seems for their students to get into even one Big 9 institution; who complain that their best student was shut out of all her top choices despite stellar credentials, even with the benefit of good counseling from someone who knows the game.

Even students without access to good counseling hear this, and they understand the odds, as much as any 17-year-old can understand statistics.  And while the chance of admission is not random, students may see it that way, as they really have no idea what their chances are going into the process; all they have to go on is published admissions statistics, which, taken at face value, actually overestimate a student’s chance of admission at any highly selective institution in regular admission, given the weight to Early Decision and Early Action.

But suppose a student can find a binomial probability calculator on line, and plugs in 9 chances, each with a 10% chance of success (again, admission is not random, and these events are not independent; this is an exercise).  Here’s what they’d get:

ScreenHunter 114 Apr. 05 11.25

The chance of being admitted to at least one (the last box) is 61%.  A little more than half, using optimistic estimates of probability, given highly asymmetrical information.  Does this student think he’s going to get in?

How about getting into all nine? Does she expect admits to nine out of nine? With a one-in-ten thousand chance?  I doubt it.

ScreenHunter 115 Apr. 05 12.11

The third line of criticism suggests that this behavior is wrong because it takes away chances from other students.

ScreenHunter 116 Apr. 05 12.15

No one believes it, but think of it this way: Each of these fine institutions is full every year. Capacity is capped.  In order to be full, each of the students they enroll has to be admitted.  Does this make sense?  If not, the math won’t persuade you.

The real issue, I believe, is that many people feel like these wildcat students, these mavericks who defy convention by applying to all the Big 9, put professional counselors at a disadvantage by refusing to play by the informal rules that make high powered secondary schools and highly selective institutions such cozy partners. If you read between the lines, you could easily suspect this informal rule against applying to all nine is a nice, wink wink, nudge nudge anti-competitive agreement propping up the implicit symbiosis that makes the college admissions game a win-win for certain agents on both sides of the equation.

If we yell enough, and make this behavior seem abhorrent  and somehow unacceptable, they seem to think, perhaps it will go away.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is how it feels when your privilege is taken away for just a moment in time.  Try to imagine for just a moment what it’s like living your whole life without it.


A Modest Proposal, Redux

No, not the original.

Last night, as I was scrolling through the news, I saw this article, reporting on the statement by Harvard University on the Immigration Order issued by the president.

Using my personal account, I tweeted out this:


One RT, and one heart.  OK, no one got the joke except a constitutional law professor.

But then I thought, “hey, this should be a higher ed post,” so I tweeted out something similar on my “professional” (quotation marks added for emphasis) account:


This time, 22 RTs and 72 hearts (so far), even though it was hastily written and poorly worded.  In the words of the spiritual gurus, it resonated with my followers.  Even though it was (sort of) a joke.  Was this like the discovery of penicillin? Maybe, but probably not.

But seriously, let’s think about it.  What if the Ivy League and the ten or 15 wannabes all got together and decided no children or grandchildren of congressmen or White House staff would be admitted until those two bodies started acting like decent, civilized human beings who are looking out for the good of the country, rather than their own political interests?

How long would it take?  And, how much better would the classes at those institutions be because of it in the interim?

If you can ban people from entering the US based on where their parents live, you can certainly ban them from admission to private universities based on how their parents act.  (Note: I’m not a lawyer and in all probability you can’t do either.  But this is a personal blog, not a treatise on the constitution.  Go to SCOTUS blog or some other high falutin’ web site for that.)

What do you think about this whimsical Utopian idea?  Leave a comment below, but remember, I have to approve them.  Dissent and reasoned discussion is welcomed.  Use of the word “libtard” or similar verbiage will get your comments dumped.





Do we like complexity?

A few years ago, I was at a conference, and sat in a room with mostly high school counselors who had some bones to pick with the most selective colleges and the way they do admissions.  None of their points were unreasonable, of course: They wanted the colleges and universities to be more responsive when they asked questions, to give some semblance of predictable admissions decisions (“One college turned down my valedictorian two years in a row; what am I supposed to tell kids?” was one of the comments).  They were also pushing back against the proliferation of seemingly random deadlines, ridiculously restrictive Early Action (and of course, the inherently restrictive Early Decision).

Having sat patiently through 30 minutes of this, I got to ask my question, not of the colleges on stage, but of the audience members.  It went something like this:

Suppose the perfect college exists: It’s responsive, it’s high quality by any measure, it’s fully transparent about pricing, admissions decisions are predictable, and it puts the interest of students above its own.  In three years, do you think this college will a) have so many applications it can’t possibly be like that any more, or b) get so few applications that it will no longer be viewed as a high quality college?

A few people knew what I was getting at, but others seemed dumbfounded by the question.

I was reminded of this last week when I went to speak to parents at St. Mary’s Episcopal School, Hutchison School, and Memphis University School. I was asked to shed some insight, from a 30,000 foot level, about how admissions worked.

One of the slides talked about the confusing application rules for a hypothetical student who might be applying to eight selective universities.  The I tried to explain why it was like this.  I offered five points:

  • First, the process has evolved independently at each institution, much like evolution worked on earth.  You have fish and elephants and spiders and humans, all with some common chemical basis, but each very different.  Evolution typically does not move forward in perfectly predictable patterns.

However, I went on to suggest that we actually like complexity like this, for several reasons:

  • Complexity reinforces importance and special-ness, as opposed to the routine and mundane. Think of weddings, and how extraordinarily ridiculous they’ve become; think of corporate purchase orders the the bureaucracy, which are designed to ensure you don’t spend money foolishly; and think of the auto manufacturer Saturn, which tried to de-mystify the auto buying experience, and how horribly that experiment failed.
  • Complexity invigorates, even if the goal is the opposite: Think of family vacations, and how stressful they can be because you’re out of your routine, and suddenly coordinating among five people seems like Differential Equations.
  • Complexity is associated with big wins: The state sells a lot more Lotto tickets when the payoff is enormous, even though your odds on the scratch off are frequently higher, and easier to understand.  If I asked you to name someone who’s climbed the second-highest mountain in the world, would you be able to do so?
  • Finally (you probably knew it was coming to this): Complexity favors the insiders, and the people with a Sherpa who can help them navigate. Imagine being 17 and faced with figuring out where to start, no matter how intelligent you are.  The process is like Pac-Man; an average video game player who has watched it before trying it will probably do much better than an expert gamer who goes in cold.  And, unfortunately, college admissions is mostly something people do once, at least in the high stakes realm.

Does the data bear this out?  Perhaps.  What we see is that the institutions with the most complex processes tend to generate more and more applications every year.  Here is an image of a dashboard, where you can see for yourself.  Just click here or on the image to interact, and let me know what you think, whether your thoughts are complex or simple.




Hot Takes from ACT on Test-optional

Absurdities seem to come in clumps.  While I was on the train reading Twitter earlier this week, I saw this. You may not see the final sentence, so I’ve cut it out for you here:


As absurdities go, it’s really hard to top that, but later that day I stumbled upon this document from ACT moments after I got into the office.  It’s a summary of their top five reasons (full report ) on Why Test-optional Policies Do NOT Benefit Institutions or Students. (Emphasis via capitalization is theirs. They don’t want you to think they’ve jumped on the bandwagon.)

There are several “WTF” moments in this document, (my personal favorite being statisticians–who really should know better–making guesses about what some of Bill Hiss’s data might possibly say if only they could analyze it) but let’s start with the most beautiful.  See if you can spot it here, as ACT attempts to debunk the claim of many researchers who don’t have to sell test services to make a living:


ACT is picking on kids who score 10 or less on the ACT in the callout, and using them as an example of the reason test-optional is a bad policy.  In the world of multiple-choice tests, there is a threshold score for guessing, that is, the score you’d expect to earn if you didn’t read any of the questions and simply filled in the bubbles.  Some test prep experts I know estimate this score to be about 12 on the ACT.

But let’s get back to the students who perform worse than random guessing and score 10 or less on the test. In case you were wondering, here is a chart of all ACT tests from 2002 to 2013, and the percentage (in the blue bar) who scored a 10 or less.  screenhunter_1473-oct-03-09-24


Can’t see it?  Look harder.  

It’s that little sliver of blue on top of the orange: In 2013, it was about 0.4% of all testers, or roughly four of every 1,000 students, or less than 8,000 students total, and that number is about twice as high as 2002, before many more students who probably weren’t thinking of college were forced to take the test anyway.  Over 5,000 of the 8,000 of them are under-represented students of color, and the largest single group are very-low income students. Just over 10% who listed a class rank were in the top quarter of their class, so the number of 4.0 students is an extraordinarily small sample size, unless these kids all went to the same five colleges. They didn’t.

However, even these students, who’ve probably done everything their high school has asked of them, but who are poor, statistically likely to be from an under-resourced high school, with parents who (almost certainly) did not go to college, and who score very low on this test, only (emphasis mine) have a 30% chance of a B or better, and presumably an even higher chance of a C or better. And remember, these kids are so far outside the range of “College-ready”–a term ACT loves to use with administrators in school districts as they try to make taxpayers happy and sell more tests, that ACT suggests they shouldn’t be in college at all.

Of course, there doesn’t seem to be any control for other important factors that contribute to student success, like, oh, income, or parental attainment, or taxpayer support for your school, or the need to work in college, or whether you commute (if I’m wrong, I’ll be the first to correct it publicly, but I’ve asked several people who know way more about statistics than I do, and they suggest I’m right after looking at this.)  If you don’t know that kids who score low tend to be poorer, tend to be from under-resourced high schools, tend to have parents who are not college educated; and further, if you fail to understand that each of those factors in and of itself predicts college enrollment and attainment, well, as the kids say, I can’t even.  You might want to read this.  And if you don’t know that colleges like test scores because they predict wealth, you should read this.

Additionally, take a deeper look at the first chart.  The real lesson, it would appear, is that if you’re a 2.0 student, you have a very low chance of getting a B-average in college, even if you score in the 99th percentile on the ACT.  College admissions officers know this already.  In fact, that’s the very basis for test-optional admissions: The realization that HS GPA is a way better predictor of success.

After we went test-optional, two representatives from ACT came to talk to us.  I asked a simple question: Do you acknowledge that four years of high school more closely resembles four years of college than a three-hour test resembles four years of college?  The answer they gave, of course, was yes. Testing agencies know this.

If you have that 35 and a 2.5 in high school, your chances are still only 50% (about the same as a student with a 20 ACT and a 3.3 GPA). And regardless of your test score–EVEN A 10–your chances go way up with your grades. (Again, before you look at other factors).

No one–not the most ardent critic of tests–has ever suggested that tests don’t predict something by themselves, but as the ACT report acknowledges, about 75% of students have scores commensurate with their HS performance, so in the majority of cases, ACT adds virtually nothing to understanding; it simply echoes the high school record. And it’s clear–even from the ACT data–that students with lower scores and high grade point averages have a solid chance of doing well in college.  Well, maybe not for the 0.4%, but still.

If this doesn’t make sense, consider the words of one test-prep expert who called this report “cherry-picking B.S.” except he used a longer word for “B.S.”

Standardized multiple-choice tests (whose creator, Frederick Kelly called them a measure of lower-order thinking skills) measure a specific type of skill, and all things being equal, choosing a “right answer” from four given is a skill you’d rather have than not have; every skill you bring to college (including many the ACT or SAT can’t measure) probably contributes in some way to success.  Bill Sedlacek and others have shown this: In short, people with more skills tend to be more successful.  Duh, as the kids say.

But we could devise lots of tests to measure creativity, leadership, drive, determination, the ability to overcome obstacles, a sense of humor, and even a realistic sense of self, all of which would likely add to our ability to predict college success.  The question is: Is it worth it? And how much time would be dedicated to teaching students how to do well on these tests?  It’s Campbell’s Law, all over again.

The same ACT that criticizes the Hiss and Frank study for looking at the whole sample presumes to speak for “Institutions” using national data. There is no recognition that every university has a different purpose and mission, or even that some universities might have different results: The title of the report leaves little wiggle room.

And, of course, we do our own research, and we look at those things that predict academic success: For us, a 2.5 GPA and 48 credits earned in the first year is the critical outcome: Hit that, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to graduate.  For us, ACT and SAT uniquely explain about 2% of the variance in that type of freshman performance, far less than GPA, and only about as much as our attempt to measure non-cognitive variables (which we developed without spending millions of dollars on research, and which are–unlike tests–almost perfectly gender, race, and income neutral.) Other institutions, like The University of Georgia, and the Cal System, have uncovered similar patterns.

Weigh the benefits of this 2% bump against the cost of standardized testing, against the ways the tests are misused (comparing one school district to another, or basing teacher pay on scores), and against the time spent on prepping for the tests themselves that could be used for other things (like, teaching math, for instance).  Then consider the ways in which testing perpetuates class and racial and income divisions, especially when colleges use it to make decisions.  Then ask if it’s all worth it.



Our National Saturday Morning Combines

Next week, the NFL Draft will come to Chicago again.  For most of us, it will mean a headache of closed streets, crowded restaurants, bad traffic, and a lot of fuss about a system of connecting players and teams that seems archaic or even anti-American to many.

For some people who live and die with sports, though, it’s among the most important weeks in their year.  And the way it works got me thinking about the process leading up to it, and how it connects–in an admittedly strange way–to college admissions.  Thus, my second blog post connecting football to test-optional admissions. Here’s the first one, in case  you’re interested.

Teams have a lot riding on the outcome of the draft, and they spend millions of dollars scouting players.  This includes weeks of film study, personal interviews with players, and participation in the NFL Combine, where they run players through a series of drills like the 40-yard dash, the bench press, and the 3-cone drill.  These results are provided to all the teams who analyze the data and combine it with their own individual analysis.

Lots of people have pointed out that these workouts provide almost no additional value to teams: The 40-yard dash, something offensive linemen almost never do, for instance, is particularly suspect, yet it’s often one of the most frequently cited statistics; even for positions where you think it might matter, it often doesn’t.  Jerry Rice, for instance, arguably the greatest receiver in NFL history, had an abysmal time of 4.71 seconds.

If you can’t get to that Wall Street Journal article, here is a chart from it that makes the point:


And there are other articles you can easily find showing players who did really well on these tests and ended up being not-so-great in football (although, of course, just making it to the NFL is quite an accomplishment).

The reason is simple, I think: The NFL is looking for people who can play football really well.  And the best way to find football players with potential is to watch them actually play football.  The other stuff might (emphasis on might) contribute to football ability, but the NFL would never draft a guy who finished first in every test, but had never set foot on a football field.

So it is with college admissions at test-optional colleges.  We’re looking for students who can do academics really well.  That’s best measured by high school performance, not your results in a three-hour Saturday morning dash.

The four years a student spends in high school is far more similar to the four years in college than three or four hours in a standardized testing environment on a Saturday morning: On Saturday, you choose the “right” answer from four given.  All things being equal, this is not a bad skill to have.  And if you’re a super-selective institution, you have the ability to demand both exceptional academic performance and great standardized tests.  (If the NFL draft were not such a shining example of socialism, the Bears might be able to attract more talent–as measured on both football ability and combine scores–because of a financial base stronger than the Tennessee Titans, for instance.)

But the four years in college isn’t spent choosing an answer on multiple choice tests under a tight time constraint, just like time on a football field isn’t spent doing 40-yard dashes or bench-pressing lots of weight repeatedly or jumping as high as you can.

It’s spent listening, reading, absorbing, synthesizing, dissecting, drafting, writing, and re-writing over a period of ten of fifteen weeks.  And if you’ve done something similar in high school, and done it well, there’s a good chance you’re ready for the big leagues of college.  Again, if you have the academic equivalent of a great broad jump, that’s terrific.  But not having it doesn’t mean you won’t do well.  Similarly, of course, there are really good football players who don’t measure up in the vertical jump, and in fact, almost never have to do a vertical jump on the field.

The NFL Combine is likely to continue, probably because it’s filled with people who have always done it that way, and people who have come through the system.  In that sense, it’s like the people at the most prestigious universities, who are there precisely because in part, they scored well on standardized tests throughout their whole life, and believe they are meaningful and important in selecting candidates.

They don’t seem to mind that they’re almost certainly missing a Tom Brady or a Jerry Rice; and they’re not interested in taking chances because a) they don’t have to, b) there is little reward for doing so, and c) they believe tests indicate something important.  Many other institutions don’t see life through the same lens.  And that’s the big difference.

Whence comes this new-found concern?

This has been an interesting couple of weeks for college admissions, following an interesting year.

The Harvard Graduate School of Education has issued a report entitled Turning the Tide, that advocates for a major overhaul in the way college admissions is done.  I spoke to the author of the document last year as he was pulling support together, and my first response was, frankly, not enthusiastic.  It seemed the things we talked about–highly stressed students focusing on developing the perfect resume solely for the purpose of getting into an elite institution–were not on my radar.  My university is one of the several hundred in the great middle of the distribution in higher education in the US: Moderately selective, reasonably well known, with a reputation and a student body unlike the Ivy League institutions; although my (gr)atitude has been labeled “sour grapes,” I can honestly say I wouldn’t want to work at those super-selective institutions, who are best known for making a silk purse out of silk.  (In the interest of fairness, I should point out that the president of DePaul, a colleague of the author at Harvard, signed in support of the paper.)

As I read through the document, though, I softened a bit.  Some of the recommendations are very consistent with my own philosophy: De-emphasizing standardized tests, promoting the idea that there are many, many more great colleges than the average American might think, and encouraging students to get off the hamster wheel.  It’s hard to argue with much of it, even if the problems it touches do seem to be experienced by a very small group of colleges at the top of the bell curve, and even if it’s always easier to find problems than to correct them.

Despite this, many school counselors in a Facebook group I belong to are still skeptical. Some reported calls from parents who asked whether junior could drop an AP course or two. Others want to know just how this could or should change the approach toward the application. Will Dix took a major swing at it here, and summed up a lot of thinking from a lot of people.   I don’t agree with all of what he writes, but much of it is spot on. Some of my colleagues are convinced that “kindness” consultants will crop up to help students appear more kind and caring.  This, of course, is simply Campbell’s Law, and no one should be surprised by it.

One poster in our group even suggested that changing admissions criteria was a way to legally discriminate against Asian students, who, when evaluated simply or solely on academic accomplishment and test scores, simply outshine others.  It’s an interesting theory, I think, and not unlike my recent post suggesting law suits by Asian students might be the first step in diminishing the importance of the SAT or ACT.  But I’m not sure that’s it.

Others have pointed out that this initiative may have the opposite effect: Students who lack superstar credentials might think “kindness” is sufficient for admission and might apply in droves, making these institutions even more selective, and thus even more prone to focus on those with extraordinary academic accomplishments.  Possibly.  Prestige–and thus selectivity–are the coin of the realm in much of higher education.

My concern is a conceptual one: Should kindness be a value measured and rewarded in the college admissions process?  I mean, the easy answer is yes, but shouldn’t that be a local decision each college makes on its own?  Should’t there be room for colleges who actually strive to make students kinder, or more compassionate?  Or will the super-selective institutions simply take kind students, turn out kind students, and take credit for it, much like critics say they do in matters academic?  A bigger question for another day, I think.

The most common observation and objection, however, was that this was somehow tied to The Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success, a controversial alignment of strange bedfellows in higher education who, apparently frustrated with some technical difficulties the Common Application encountered, decided to take their ball and go home.  (I cannot confirm that any of them did or did not suffer irreparable harm, but egos are large in higher ed, and those bruises aren’t so easily seen).  It’s possible, of course, that the creators of The Coalition were a part of this: That they suspected their own initiative, one I suggested was really not about college access at all, would somehow seem sweeter if dipped in sugar and drizzled with caramel.

I’m not so sure about that, either, but I suppose it’s possible, even though the timing doesn’t seem right.  I do, however, see another connection, and one that seems to be overlooked.  Turning the Tide seems to owe more to Excellent Sheep than it does to other sources, and interestingly enough, both are faculty initiatives.

Could it be that Turning the Tide is simply an expression of faculty who yearn to teach fewer grinds, fewer Wall Street focused students, fewer students who want to be told what to do in order to get their reward?  Could it be they’d just like to teach students who care about bigger societal issues rather than their own comfort, amusement, and power? Students who want to chart their own course, and define success in ways they think are more personal?

In a chapter I wrote on the role of college admissions in the academy for a university textbook, I included this:

Similarly, Karabel (2005) suggests that the policies of the admissions offices at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton in the late 1800’s and early part of the 20th century had as much, or even more, to do with shaping the 20th century as what actually went on inside the classrooms at those quintessential brand names in American higher education. This might seem like a formidable burden to hoist onto the shoulders of mere gatekeepers, but it exists as perhaps an excellent introduction to the widely divergent perspectives on college admissions offices today.

If you believe admissions offices can shape the world we live in, Turning the Tide might stand as a milestone of societal change.  And I hope that’s the case. But if the support from the super-selectives is disingenuous, we’ll find out soon enough.

What do you think?