(First of a three-part series)

Last week, just in time for the Blizzard of 2016, the Making Caring Common project at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education released a report, “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions.”  The title is misleading, in that the report’s title and focus on concern for others have nothing to do with either University of Alabama football fans or college students who need to do laundry more often, but the report should nevertheless spark a lot of discussion in the world of college admission.


Making Caring Common’s goal is producing caring young people with ethical awareness and a concern for the common good, and “Turning the Tide” attempts to examine how those qualities might be reinforced through the college admissions process.  The report, authored by psychologist Richard Weissbourd, co-director of the project and a presenter at last fall’s NACAC conference in San Diego, argues that “the college admissions process is powerfully positioned to send different messages that help young people become more generous and human in ways that benefit not only society but students themselves” and that “colleges can powerfully collaborate to send different messages to high school students about what colleges value.”


The recommendations in the "Turning the Tide" focus on two areas.  One is promoting “meaningful, sustained community service,” contrasted with what the report describes as “high-profile or exotic forms of community service, sometimes in faraway places, that have little meaning to them (students) but appear to demonstrate their entrepreneurial spirit and leadership.”  Related to that focus are suggestions on how colleges might assess ethical awareness and concern for others, primarily through revised essay questions.


The second area involves reducing pressure to achieve to impress college admissions offices (what I would describe as resume-building).  Recommendations include: emphasizing quality over quantity in extracurricular activities; reducing the emphasis on taking as many AP/IB courses as possible; discouraging “overcoaching” of the application process; reducing test pressure; and challenging the belief that there are only a handful of “good” colleges.


I read “Turning the Tide” while snowed in over the weekend, and it is an important contribution to the conversation about what college admission should represent as process and as profession.  Like many reports, it is much better at identifying problems than it is at proposing solutions, and some critics have already questioned its basic premise that today’s prospective college students are lacking in ethical awareness and concern for society.


The report also hints at/begs larger questions about both college admission and higher education.  Is a college education about producing good students or good people?  What are the messages that colleges send to students through the college admissions process, and what messages should they be sending?  Does the college admissions process need overhauling, and are the changes needed evolutionary or revolutionary?


I’m going to attempt to tackle some of those questions in what will be a first for ECA, a three-part series.  In this first part, some observations regarding “Turning the Tide.”


First, I accept and endorse the report’s basic premise that colleges have an opportunity as well as an obligation to drive the conversation about what qualities and what credentials are important in the college admissions process.  The report seems to assume that colleges have the power to change the behavior of students and parents, and I’m not sure that’s the case, because there are other powerful influences at work.  But at a time when there is a billion-dollar industry profiting off the anxiety related to the college admissions process by peddling myths (or the term I prefer, “Suburban Legends”) about college admission, the failure of our profession, especially on the college side, to speak up and clarify what is important and what is b.s. is a lost opportunity and perhaps an abdication of responsibility.


One of those “Suburban Legends” involves community service, and the strength of the report is its focus on “meaningful, sustained community service.”  There is an argument to be made that all community service has value, but there is a clear difference between service that reflects an individual’s passion, service done to fulfill a graduation requirement, and service that is court-mandated.


There is also a difference between sustained service and one-shot service.  A number of years ago one of my students wrote in a college essay that his community service during our two-week experiential learning term was the most meaningful experience of his life.  When I pointed out that colleges might wonder, “If it’s was so meaningful, why aren’t you still doing it?”, he didn’t have a good answer. 


In many parts of the country there is a subtle arms race when it comes to service, founded in an assumption that the more glamorous the service, the more it will impress colleges. Is building a house in Haiti more worthwhile or impressive than building a house in one’s own community?  Colleges certainly don’t send that message, but do they dispel that idea clearly enough?


“Turning the Tide” isn’t as strong when it comes to making the admissions process more sane, rehashing ideas like reducing the emphasis on AP/IB courses and testing.  I don’t disagree with those, but don’t see that they will automatically produce more ethically aware students.  What those things have in common with community service is that they are shortcuts that stand-in for substance and depth.  One of the things about college admission best kept secret is how little time is spent reading applications compared with how much time students spend completing them.  Until that changes those short-cuts will continue to be emphasized.

One of the groups listed as supporting “Turning the Tide” is the Board of Directors of the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success.  I find that interesting, hopeful, and ironic.  One of the things that appealed to me about the Coalition was its language about establishing an admissions process that encourages reflection and personal growth in students, and yet when I sat through Coalition presentations at NACAC and the College Board Forum I wasn’t hearing anything that supported that, particularly in the proposed new application platform. 


The schools that have joined the Coalition are a powerful collection of leading public and private institutions that can truly drive conversation and changes about what the college admissions process should be.  At the same time, the establishment of the Coalition also seems at odds with the emphasis in “Turning the Tide” on expanding students’ thinking about “good” colleges, since the Coalition can be seen as an elitist club with membership requirements that exclude the majority of  “good” colleges and universities in the United States.


I hope “Turning the Tide” will engender an ongoing discussion within our profession about how college admission can serve the public interest (the “common good”) and not just institutional self-interest.