Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A Change in Store for College Admissions?

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

It’s been called an academic arms race, the race to nowhere, the rush to rankings, and more.  Thanks in large part to the ridiculous idea that there is one best college for everyone, applying to college has turned into a parody of Reality TV, where students spend thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours preparing for a four hour test that, in the eyes of many, holds their future well-being in the balance.

It’s important to point out that school counselors have resisted this change, long advocating for an approach to college selection that was based on the student’s interests, needs, and goals. That’s an approach many of us are about to embark on with the Class of 2017, even though those plans will be out-shouted by artificial college rankings that make students feel worthless unless they are pursuing The Best College On Earth, or by parents who are convinced that their child will be destined to a life of sleeping on their couch unless they attend a college “everyone” has heard of, even if that means driving the family, and the student, into deep debt.

It would seem all of that is about to change.

“Turning the Tide” is a report that came out of Harvard, and if its lofty goals are only half realized, the world of college admissions is in for a very overdue change.  Supported by 50 institutions, including some of the most selective colleges in the world, the report calls for a shift in the foundation of college admissions in three key areas:

1. Promoting more meaningful contributions to others, community service and engagement with the public good.

2. Assessing students’ ethical engagement and contributions to others in ways that reflect varying types of family and community contributions across race, culture and class.

3. Redefining achievement in ways that both level the playing field for economically diverse students and reduce excessive achievement pressure.

This change will only be realized, the report asserts, by making sure colleges, parents, and school counselors embrace eleven recommendations, including everything from devaluing the role of testing (where no student takes the ACT or SAT more than twice), to contributions to family, to expanding students’ thinking about “good” colleges.

The tone of the report is certainly encouraging to any family who watched the college selection process change their child from a student who loves to learn, to a student who learned how to negotiate a labyrinth of stress and societal scorn while trying to stay true to self.  Such a journey brings key life lessons, to be sure; but when one remembers that the purpose of college is to expand one’s view of self and the world, the competitive, narrow, cynical tone that too often resonates within college admissions seems a rather bizarre way to begin an experience intended to be expansive by nature.

“Turning the Tide” appeals to counselors because we are trained to see the best in all people and situations.  At the same time, there is some question if colleges that just admitted half (or more) or their class through early action programs are truly willing to risk yield percentages and graduation rates in the name of healthier children, and if they do, will students and parents actually buy in.  There are reports that a summit will be held this summer to discuss how to bring these lofty goals to life.  A first indication that colleges are serious about these changes will be seeing how many lifelong advocates of the “what’s the hurry” approach to college advising are invited to attend.

Those would be school—not guidance—counselors.

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