I remember the phone call as if it were yesterday, because it was one of the few times in my life that I have been rendered speechless. 

It was the end of a long school day, and on the other end of the line was an exasperated mother.  Her son had been wait-listed at his first choice school, not unexpectedly, and she was calling either for reassurance and advice on strategy or just to vent. In any case, the call was fine until she asked a question for which I had no answer.  “Why do they have to look at his grades?”

Why indeed?  It is probably inaccurate to say that I was speechless, because it was all I could do to refrain from giving her a smart-ass answer that she clearly wouldn’t have appreciated.  Now, however, I think back to her question and realize that her son was born 25 years too soon. Today students who would prefer that colleges not look at their grades can apply to Goucher College.

Several weeks ago Goucher, a liberal-arts college located just outside Baltimore, announced a new application option whereby students can choose to submit a two-minute video instead of a transcript.  Applicants who submit a video in lieu of a transcript will also be expected to submit two pieces of high school work, but the video will be the primary factor influencing Goucher’s admissions decision.

I’ve always liked Goucher (probably mostly because years ago during my admissions days I had a crush on a female admissions staff member there), but my first response when I read the reports about the new option in the Chronicle of Higher Education and InsideHigherEd was to check my calendar to see if I had somehow turned into Rip Van Winkle and slept through seven months of the school year, such that it was already April Fools’ Day (in which case I would have been even farther behind in my rec writing). 

My reaction was not out of the mainstream.  When I told mentioned the Goucher announcement to my seniors and parents while talking about the trends in the admissions world, it was the biggest laugh line of the night.  Several colleagues have interpreted the move as a sign of desperation, and Macalester College President Brian Rosenberg broke the unwritten rule against criticizing other colleges when he wrote an opinion piece for the Chronicle awarding Goucher the prize for dumbest higher-education move.

Plenty of colleges have made submitting standardized test scores optional, but Goucher is the first selective school I’m aware of to make a transcript optional.  I’m sorry, but I don’t see transcript-optional admissions as an idea whose time has come.

That’s not to say that it may not be founded on good assumptions.  An admissions counselor at Goucher was quoted in the Chronicle as saying “Students are more than just numbers,” and I agree whole-heartedly.  I have asked the question, “Are we measuring the right things?” several times in this blog, reflecting that there are non-cognitive, non-academic predictors of success both in college and in life.  But recognizing that grades and scores may provide an incomplete picture of an individual does not mean that eliminating them gives a better picture.

Students are more than just numbers, but so are transcripts.  A transcript tells a student’s story for a discerning reader, from level of rigor to relative strengths and weaknesses (struggles in math, great history student) to upward trend both year-to-year and semester-to-semester.  Reading a transcript requires context, hopefully provided by a school profile and by the information in a letter of recommendation. 

It is one thing to recognize that students are works-in-progress and therefore give less weight to high school grades, and another thing altogether to not ask for a transcript.  There is a difference between making test scores optional and a transcript optional.  Test scores may either confirm or call into question a student’s high school performance, but test scores are supplemental information.  A transcript is essential information for a college.  How much they choose to weigh it is up to them, but there is no excuse for not requiring a transcript.  The one possible exception would be for a college that is itself abolishing grades for its students.  As President Rosenberg from Macalester asks, is Goucher prepared to have its graduates put together a video for employers and graduate schools that summarizes the value of their Goucher education in lieu of grades and transcripts?

Goucher President Jose Antonio Bowen is quoted as hoping that this innovation will increase yield, bringing in more students with “affinity” for Goucher rather than students applying to Goucher as one of many in a shotgun application approach.  He also says that the college application model is broken and maybe even “insane.” 

I think he’s right about that.  The quest for selectivity and prestige has led colleges to attempt to generate more applications, or, more accurately, more rejections.  That has resulted in a vicious circle that doesn’t serve anyone well.  Students panic when they perceive college admission getting harder and respond by applying to more schools.  That makes it harder for colleges to determine when an application is serious, leading to an increased focus on demonstrated interest and more students being placed on Wait Lists, which starts the cycle all over again.  There is an important but difficult conversation to be had about whether the college admissions process works well for students and for colleges and whether it is time for a radical revamping.

If college admissions is broken, making a high school transcript optional is in no way a fix.  Goucher’s new program has generated plenty of attention, and I hope it doesn’t backfire for them, but I don’t see transcript-optional admission as either interesting or positive.


P.S.  My last post on conflict of interest generated several thoughtful comments and questions from readers with other examples of possible of conflict of interest.  As always, I appreciate the feedback, and will do another post reflecting some of those comments.

Two milestones:  Ethical College Admissions will celebrate its second anniversary later this week, while I am in Indianapolis attending NACAC.  It’s been a rewarding journey, maybe the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done professionally.  In addition, the blog just had its 15,000th hit, far beyond my expectations and dreams two years ago.  Thanks for your support—it means a lot.