After the U.S. Supreme Court’s ban on race-conscious admissions practices, the world of higher education has scrambled to find ways to maintain racial and ethnic diversity on campuses. One of the most commonly suggested methods is for colleges to put a greater focus on character, that bundle of mental and moral traits like determination, unselfishness, and curiosity that shapes outcomes inside and outside of the classroom.
“It’s something that would benefit students from underserved backgrounds, where, for example, they didn’t have the resources to be president of the film club or to travel to Haiti to do Habitat for Humanity,” said Dr. Robert Massa, co-founder of the Character Collaborative, a non-profit focused on raising the importance of these traits in admissions processes. Character can be revealed in endeavors that wouldn’t necessarily come through in a traditional application, added Massa, like taking care of a younger sibling while a single parent is working.
The Character Collaborative was recently acquired by the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC), which will make its work the centerpiece of its Character Focus Initiative, announced last Thursday in the strongest sign yet of character’s newfound prominence. The Character Collaborative is offering a series of online courses to help admissions staffs incorporate character into their processes, with two focusing specifically on evaluating recommendation letters and college essays. The courses make it clear that colleges looking to successfully consider character may have to make a big adjustment.
The courses present research from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common Project showing that, when colleges have attempted to use character in the past, the capacities that they focused on were often chosen with no clear rationale, based on little evidence, and poorly defined. Often, application readers didn’t use formal rubrics or get sufficient training in character assessment. And performance character traits like diligence, grit, and initiative were often conflated with ethical character traits like compassion, honesty, and caring, leading to ethical traits getting short shrift.
The Harvard researchers recommended that colleges and universities consider these capacities separately, with performance and intellectual character traits being considered as part of an academic potential index, alongside traditional measures like grades, and ethical character being considered in its own domain with a separate weight. Colleges will have to create prompts to elicit this information from students and figure out how they are going to assess contextual factors, like whether a student has to work at a job that might affect his or her grades.
The courses also show that incorporating a character focus into admissions will be a long process. A school first has to settle on the character traits that best fit its institutional mission and establish common definitions of the traits through training of the admissions team. A college will have to determine which parts of the application provide the best evidence of those traits and determine what scale or combination of scales will be used to evaluate the applicants. An institution will have to create teams of readers who have gone through a norming process together and who read through the parts of the application in the same order. And finally, a school will have to be willing to follow up with external sources when more information is needed.
Even if a school can pull all of that off successfully, there are some who think that an increased emphasis on character might not be a good idea. Dr. Don Hossler, a senior scholar at the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice in the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California, participated in the creation of the courses, but doesn’t think that character will make a big difference.
“On a scale from one to ten, my hunch about the impact is probably at best a five,” he said.
Hossler argued that a focus on character could increase disparities, regardless of how a college handles it. If a school is not explicit about what sorts of traits it’s looking for, students from underrepresented backgrounds who are less likely to have deep familiarity with the admissions process are less likely to emphasize their character.
“If we don’t tell them what we’re looking for, they don’t know the rules,” said Hossler.
But if a school says exactly what it’s looking for, it provides an advantage to wealthier students, who can shape their applications to reflect (or seem to reflect) these traits.
“There’s plenty of evidence that softer skills are just more coachable,” said Hossler. “More affluent students are more likely to be successful at tailoring their essays to what the institution is looking for. The more the school gives concrete examples, the more they’re coaching the affluent student on.”
Others argue that it’s not the place of colleges and universities to make character judgments about students.
“A college degree is a necessary consumer product in our culture for someone to have social mobility or social stability. What other necessary consumer products do we have that we require some kind of character test?” said Marie Bigham, founder and director of Admissions Community Cultivating Equality & Peace Today (ACCEPT), an advocacy group focused on racial justice in college admissions. “Philosophically, I’m not sure how or why character, as ill-defined as that is, should be used to purchase a necessary good.”
Bigham is also concerned that bias could creep into character evaluations and points out that the concept has been used to exclude students in the past.
“Historically, the idea of character and fit really popped up in the ‘30s and ‘40s because colleges wanted to keep Jewish people out,” she said. “Character really meant ‘people like us.’ That makes me nervous.”
Bigham additionally points out that few good, scientifically rigorous instruments for measuring character traits from a college application exist and argues that colleges aren’t even good at predicting who has bad character, citing Elizabeth Holmes and college presidents who have recently resigned under clouds as examples.
Although Bigham is skeptical, she praised the courses as potentially helpful and praised those involved for trying to find new, creative solutions. Hossler agreed.
“It’s a conundrum we need to keep grappling with,” he said.
Jon Edelman can be reached at JEdelman@DiverseEducation.com