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Report: College Admissions Culture Stunting Ethical Growth of Students

A report released by the Harvard University Graduate School of Education (GSE) highlights elements of the college admission culture that could be contributing to the stunting of the ethical growth of students. The report, titled Turning the Tide, falls under the umbrella of Harvard GSE’s Making Caring Common Project and includes recommendations on how to promote greater ethical engagement among aspiring students, reduce excessive achievement pressure, and level the playing field for students from underrepresented communities. The report is the first step in a long-term effort by the Harvard GSE to reshape the college admissions process.

Turning the Tide makes the case that an intense focus on academic achievement comprises the ethical character development of many students, particularly students that come from middle- and upper-income communities. Due to the focus on high achievement, many parents in these communities often fail to help their children develop the critical cognitive, social, and ethical capacities to become empathic adults, according to the 2022 updated report. 

Turning the Tide suggests that the stunting in character development can often lead to unethical practices such as exaggerating achievements and cheating to skew the admissions process.

Dr. Richard Weissbourd, faculty director of Making Caring Common, said elevating ethical character is a collective effort that colleges and families should promote.

Dr. Richard Weissbourd is the faculty director of the Making Caring Common Project.Dr. Richard Weissbourd is the faculty director of the Making Caring Common Project.

“Our college admissions work is intended, in part, to send the message to high school students [and] young people that caring for others, caring for your communities is valued in college admissions,” said Weissbourd. “I think sometimes people can get caught up in whether specific colleges have made changes in who they accept. … But even if colleges aren’t accepting as many people with ethical character as we would like, it’s still very important to send the message to high school students that ethical character matters and being a good person matters.”

The report offers specific recommendations for reshaping the admissions process in three areas: promoting more meaningful contributions to others, community service, and community engagement with the public good; assessing students’ ethical engagement and contributions to others in ways that reflect varying types of family and community contributions across race, culture, and class; and redefining achievement in ways that level the playing field for economically diverse students and reduce excessive achievement pressure.

Trisha Ross Anderson, the college admissions program director for Making Caring Common, said the college admission system has remained unchanged for decades. Anderson said schools have relied on imperfect and inequitable assessments and tools like essays and letters of recommendation. Turning the Tide is committed to exploring and researching alternative assessments and approaches that better reveal students’ strengths and push schools to consider a wide variety of qualities when accepting students.Trisha Ross Anderson is the college admissions program director for Making Caring Common.Trisha Ross Anderson is the college admissions program director for Making Caring Common.

”Colleges care about your home responsibilities and commitments, such as taking care of a sibling after school or translating for a parent,” said Anderson. “These home activities often require real-world skills, demonstrate character, and take substantial time.”

Interviews with students, parents, and educators were conducted as a part of the Turning the Tide report development. Anderson said she quickly learned how much the college admissions process drove many students’ activities and behaviors. Students interviewed would say that they were very caring but needed to prioritize grades and SAT scores over doing service for others because “that’s what mattered to colleges.”

Over 200 colleges have endorsed the Turning the Tide report. 

“We believe that this [type] of change in admissions is a ‘laboratory’ moment,” said Anderson. “A time when we must explore and evaluate new systems, tools, and assessments that are more fair and effective at showing the strengths and potential of all students.”

Veronica Fernandez-Alvarado can be reached at [email protected] 

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