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?

 

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Categories: General

6 replies

  1. Hi Jon. Interesting post. I do have a few questions–why does it seem improbable or disingenuous for these schools to create a way to ‘measure kindness’? Doesn’t DePaul measure a student’s ability to advocate for themselves, whether or not they have a preference for long-term goals, self esteem, how engaged they are in their community and a bunch of other non-cognitive skills through its’ test-optional application? How is measuring ‘kindness’ any different? Or put another way, how is DePaul’s process any more authentic? In reference to your ‘conceptual concern’ (i.e. ‘creating room for colleges who actually strive to make students kinder, or more compassionate )where is the evidence supporting that DePaul’s curriculum creates x% of ‘kind’ graduates? If such a metric were created, how would one disaggregate between students who were already ‘kind’ before enrolling and those who were ‘developed’ into a kind person through DePaul’s curriculum?

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  2. Hi Jon—interesting post. I do have a few questions. Why is it improbable or disingenuous for these schools to measure ‘kindness’ as part of their admission process? Doesn’t DePaul do something similar when it is asking students about their level of community engagement, preference for long-term goals, self-esteem and a bunch of other non-cognitive strengths in its’ test-optional admission process? How is measuring ‘kindness’ any different? Or put another way, how is DePaul’s process any more authentic?

    Regarding your ‘conceptual concern,’ (i.e. Shouldn’t there be room for colleges who actually strive to make students kinder, or more compassionate?’) being a Vincentian institution, its clear that DePaul falls under the camp of schools who (in your view) have made a conscious pedagogical decision to not only measure ‘kindness’ in its admission process, but to also develop this quality in its students. You question the motives of the highly selective colleges by arguing that said schools are not doing the ‘real’ work of developing students socially and emotionally (and implying that institutions like yours do) when you state, ‘[…]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? ‘ How do you ensure that this isn’t currently happening at DePaul? Are you willing to create a metric that measures a student’s ‘Vincentian-ness?’ Will you then find a way to disaggregate between students who were already ‘kind’ when they were admitted and how many developed the quality as a result of DePaul’s curriculum?

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  3. Hi Jon—interesting post. I do have a few questions. Why is it improbable or disingenuous for these schools to measure ‘kindness’ as part of their admission process? Doesn’t DePaul do something similar when it is asking students about their level of community engagement, preference for long-term goals, self-esteem and a bunch of other non-cognitive strengths in its’ test-optional admission process? How is measuring ‘kindness’ any different? Or put another way, how is DePaul’s process any more authentic?

    Regarding your ‘conceptual concern,’ (i.e. Shouldn’t there be room for colleges who actually strive to make students kinder, or more compassionate?’) being a Vincentian institution, its clear that DePaul falls under the camp of schools who (in your view) have made a conscious pedagogical decision to not only measure ‘kindness’ in its admission process, but to also develop this quality in its students. You question the motives of highly selective colleges by arguing that said schools are not doing the ‘real’ work of developing students socially and emotionally when you state, ‘[…]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? ‘ How do you ensure that this isn’t currently happening at DePaul? Are you willing to create a metric that measures a student’s ‘Vincentian-ness?’ Will you then find a way to disaggregate between students who were already ‘kind’ when they were admitted vs. those who developed the quality as a result of DePaul’s curriculum?

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  4. Esmerelda, I simply pondered what happens if this turns out to be a disingenuous move on the part of the super selective institutions.

    The difference between my institution and the ones I talk about is that mine–like the overwhelming majority of colleges, educating the overwhelming majority of students–don’t have the luxury of making fine distinctions between otherwise qualified applicants. Students who come to DePaul have–we hope–identified themselves as someone who values and appreciates the Vincentian concern (Vincentians don’t have a corner on this, of course) for the dignity of each individual person. In fact, our test optional approach is designed not to uncover kindness, but rather to discover qualities of spirit and character that will make students successful at DePaul.

    It is not easy to do, of course. And it won’t be easy to find genuine kindness or character at other colleges either. But many believe a whole new industry will pop up to make sure students with wealth and privilege (who can pay for such things) look kind or compassionate, in much the same way that special service opportunities exist now.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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  5. Hi Jon—thank you for responding! I understand your position re: boutique college counseling and how it has lead you to wonder if a new niche of counseling may develop around bolstering ‘kindness’ measures in student applications among wealthy students. I also understand the myriad differences between highly selective institutions and institutions like DePaul, but thank you nonetheless for making the distinction.

    Moreover, I also understand that DePaul’s test-optional process doesn’t explicitly measure ‘kindness’—it does however, measure ‘demonstrated community service, ’ ‘leadership experience’ and other non-cognitive strengths. The fact that measuring community engagement is part of the test-optional process at DePaul indicates a desire on the part of the university to gauge on some level how considerate, empathetic, and socially aware (one might say, ‘kind’) a prospective student is.

    In short, you are decontextualizing my comment: I am arguing that It wouldn’t be very far of a stretch for DePaul, or for any school to create a ‘kindness’ metric. My original question was, why would measuring kindness, or any other non-cognitive metric that helps to uncover the ‘ qualities of spirit and character’ of a student be categorically disingenuous if it comes from a highly selective institution, but not categorically disingenuous if it comes from a mid-tier institution? When you state that elite schools simply make ‘a silk purse out of silk’ this is most certainly what you are implying.

    One could argue that at institutions that are heavily tuition dependent, (which most mid-tier institutions are) there will increasingly be a pressure to admit students who are full-pay but barely admissible over students who are high need and share a similar if not stronger academic profile—another face of the college (in)access coin that is rarely talked about. Schools who ‘serve the several hundred in the great middle of the distribution of higher education’ are by no means categorically providing a public good—they too serve to reproduce racial, social, and economic inequalities—yet they have the capital in the admission industry to present themselves as ‘everyman’ institutions. You often present this false-dichotomy in your posts. We’ll have to agree to disagree, I suppose, but I appreciate the exchange!

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