In light of recent discussions here on academic pressures and the college admissions rat race, a recently released report is particularly timely. Entitled “Turning the Tide,” and written primarily by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, it was endorsed by scores of educators, deans, and college presidents, including the admissions deans of all the Ivy League schools. The report has already generated buzz--e.g., an Op-Ed by Frank Bruni in last weekend's NY Times.
The report's general message is this: society would be improved, and college admissions pressures reduced, if colleges placed less value on academic achievement, standardized test scores, and long lists of extracurricular activities, and more value on activities that demonstrate longstanding commitment towards "the common good." It opens as follows:
As a rite of passage for many students and a major focus for many parents, the college admissions process is powerfully positioned to send different messages that help young people become more generous and humane in ways that benefit not only society but students themselves. Yet high school students often perceive colleges as simply valuing their achievements, not their responsibility for others and their communities.
The admissions process should both clearly signal that concern for others and the common good are highly valued in admissions and describe what kinds of service, contributions and engagement are most likely to lead to responsible work, caring relationships and ethical citizenship.What kinds of service do the report's authors value? Rather than
high-profile or exotic forms of community service, sometimes in faraway places, that have little meaning to them but appear to demonstrate their entrepreneurial spirit and leadership[,]students should "undertake at least a year of sustained service or community," which can include
substantial and sustained contributions to one’s family, such as working outside the home to provide needed income."Immersion" is more important than leadership; so is "the emotional and ethical awareness and skills" they acquire in the course of their service.
The study's authors also prefer services that are more social or group-based than individualistic:
While individual service can be valuable, we also encourage young people to consider various forms of community engagement, including working in groups on community problems, whether the problem is a local park that needs attention, bullying in their schools or communities or some form of environmental degradation. These types of activities can help young people develop key emotional and ethical capacities, including problemsolving skills and group awareness, as well as greater understanding of and investment in the common goodThey also prefer services that expose students to "diversity":
We encourage students to undertake community service and engagement that deepens their appreciation of diversity. Too often, current forms of service are patronizing to recipients and don’t spark in those providing service a deeper understanding of social structures and inequalities. Rather than students “doing for” students from different backgrounds, for example, we encourage students to “do with”—to work in diverse groups for sustained periods of time on school and community challenges, groups in which students learn from one another.These services should also build students' sense of responsibility towards the future:
We encourage students to take up forms of community engagement, service and reflection that help them appreciate the contributions of the generations before them—how their lives are built on the service of others—and their responsibility to their descendants. Working within a tradition, whether religious or secular, such as 4H clubs, can help generate this kind of gratitude and responsibility.How should college admissions officers assess the quality of applicants' community service? The authors say they should focus on
whether students are ethically responsible and concerned for others and their communities in their daily lives. The nature of students’ day-to-day conduct should be weighed more heavily in admissions than the nature of students’ stints of service.Turning to the problem of the college admissions rat race, the authors recommend reducing the pressure to accumulate large number of extracurricular activities:
Admissions offices should send a clear message that numerous extracurricular activities or long “brag sheets” do not increase students’ chances of admission. Applications should state plainly that students should feel no pressure to report more than two or three substantive extracurricular activities and should discourage students from reporting activities that have not been meaningful to them.Second, they recommend reducing the pressure to take large numbers of AP courses:
While some students can benefit from and handle large numbers of AP/IB courses, many students benefit from taking smaller numbers of advanced courses. Too often there is the perception that these students are penalized in the admissions processAptitude tests should also be de-emphasized, and the associated pressures lessened:
Admissions offices should work to relieve undue pressure associated with admission tests (SAT and ACT). Options for reducing this pressure include: making these tests optional, clearly describing to applicants how much these tests actually “count” and how they are considered in the admissions process, and discouraging students from taking an admissions test more than twice.Pressures on colleges with respect to these tests, meanwhile, should increase:
Colleges should also be asked to justify the use of admissions tests by providing data that indicates how scores are related to academic performance at their particular institution.In the absence of high measured aptitude and advanced placement in large numbers of courses, what it is that qualifies students to achieve in college? Again the authors spotlight ethical behavior:
Admissions offices should define students’ potential for achievement in terms of the depth of students’ intellectual and ethical engagement and potential.The authors also lament "overcoaching" in application process and suggest that admissions officers can lessen it by
warn[ing] students and parents that applications that are “overcoached” can jeopardize desired admission outcomes. Admissions officers, guidance counselors and other stakeholders should remind parents and students that authenticity, confidence, and honesty are best reflected in the student’s original voice. Admission officers should consider inviting students (and families) to reflect on the ethical challenges they faced during the application process.Finally, the authors advocate a broader sense of what qualifies as a good, career-advancing college:
Admissions officers and guidance counselors 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.I'm all for downplaying the importance of so-called "leadership," of long lists of extracurricular activities, and of one-month, one-time stints doing "community service" in the Amazon Rain forest and such. I'm all for taking into account contributions to the family--caring for relatives, contributing essential income--in making admission decisions. And I'm all for finding ways to discourage coaching on college applications, making AP tests less stressful, and making students aware of the large variety of non-big-name programs that offer an excellent college education.
But I find some of the authors' solutions less than satisfactory. This post, however, has gone on long enough; stay tuned for John Dewey goes to college, Part II, in which, among the other things, this title will be explained.