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A Critical View of College Admissions

I have been writing about and trying to remedy the flaws in college admissions for at least a decade, and I co-authored a four-part series on improving enrollment at HBCUs with my students at Bennington College.  It is a topic about which I care.

The entire admissions processes (barely changed over the decades apart from the introduction of technology) is troubling on so many levels that it is hard to describe the key levers for possible change. And, it is not as if the current processes are such a success, and we just need to tweak at the margins. That would just be rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The overall blended collegiate graduation rates at two and four year colleges hover around 50%.

Karen GrossKaren Gross

Start with this realization: many schools skew admissions to ensure high rankings in those pesky college guidebooks. Institutions enlarge the admissions pool to give the appearance of deep selectivity; they focus on criteria that are easily measurable and reported (and favor students with high SES): standardized test scores; high school GPA and honors courses. Attention is paid to extracurricular and summer experiences. Add to that the problem of balance: we want students with gender, racial, ethic, age, and geographic diversity (or so we say) with a myriad of academic, athletic and social interests; we want (supposedly) to create a community on campus that is multi-faceted. And, in addition, we want a new entering class each year (or semester) that will benefit from the experience of college — enriching each other, the faculty, staff and the community (both near and far).

For the record, in deciding among candidates with low SAT scores and poor grades, we are singularly poor at determining which of these students are more likely to succeed than others. Of course, we want those low-income Pell eligible students most likely to retain and then graduate. Don’t get me started on legacy admits. There are a set of issues with athletic admits, too.

Not an easy task to pick an entering class that meets all these identified criteria.

In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, a college admissions officer noted the value of “kindness,” something that we do not usually tag as a quality we are seeking in our students. (And, something seemingly in short supply these days in a myriad of arenas.)  Perhaps we get at this indirectly through evidence of community service but it is hard to determine whether those efforts demonstrate genuine kindness as opposed to fulfillment of a duty.

The commentator, Rebecca Sabky, singled out the recommendation letter one student received from the school custodian who touted the applicant’s kindness and caring; she observed that such letters are rare — she’d never seen one before or after the instance she described so poignantly. I wish she hadn’t been so shocked.

It is this latter point on which I really want to comment — and it goes far beyond college admissions. Sabky observes — rightly — that the values we use in college admissions miss important qualities in the applicants (such as kindness). I get that; we don’t always measure the key qualities we want to see if our graduates. I am not sure we even agree on what those qualities are and how they could be measured in the admissions processes.

Tough issues that are far from resolved.

But, I see something else in her example — something that is more troubling: we define those who are “educators” narrowly (although there are important exceptions to this).  We have narrow expectations then.  In other words, we expect teachers and guidance counselors to write recommendations. We do not think of a school custodian as an “educator;” we don’t think of the kitchen workers at a school or on a campus as educators. Nor do we think about the maintenance staff and the coaches as educators either in many instances. The educators are those with the degrees and pedigrees who teach “content.”

But, in reality, we can find teachers across the educational landscape in many spaces and places of which the classroom is but one. Education happens — and should happen — everywhere: on the athletic field, in the dining hall and in the residential hall, in classrooms, in study groups, in random hallway conversations. We harm the richness of education if we cabin it in a classroom. And, when we cabin it in this way, we foreclose opportunities for many students to connect, engage, grow and learn — to succeed. Georgetown University students have recently given this notion life through their honoring of campus “unsung heroes.”  Bravo/brava.

So, I get the importance of letters of recommendation from custodians but there is more to the story than that.  We need to think about educational institutions where everyone who works or volunteers in that environment with students is an educator. And we need to train all of our educators so they understand their mission: enabling a generation of students to succeed. This is true across the entire pre-K—20 landscape.

College admissions matter, yes. And, we are not doing it optimally, yes.  But, getting into college or post-secondary program is hardly education’s goal as I see it; getting a degree or a certificate is.  But the piece of paper alone isn’t the goal per se. The degree held by our graduates has to be robust enough to enable these individuals to obtain quality employment in their field, to continue to learn as their fields evolve and the world changes, to participate in the lives of their communities in meaningful ways, to vote, to have families that can and do engage in the larger world and to further our collective efforts to ensure that the next generation inherits a planet of which we can be proud.

As Sabky notes, the custodian matters — more than we recognize, acknowledge and support. That inability to see this latter point is not only our loss; it is a loss for our children and our children’s children, too.

Karen Gross is senior counsel at Finn Partners (formerly Widmeyer Communications), an author and educational commentator.

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