(Second in a three-part series)

For the past ten years the USA cable television network has marketed itself using the catch phrase, “Characters Welcome.”  That phrase reflects the network’s decision to differentiate itself by producing original one-hour dramas built around oddball characters such as Monk, the detective with OCD played by Tony Shalhoub.


If a recent report gains traction, the college admissions world may soon embrace the message, “character welcome.”  Last month the Making Caring Common project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education released the report, “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions,” arguing that the college admissions process can and should promote ethical as well as intellectual engagement in students.


I wrote about “Turning the Tide” in a recent post, intended to be the first in a three-part series (the three-part series is unexplored territory for ECA).  This is part two, some reflections on character as a factor in college admission.  The third part will focus on whether the college admissions process as currently constituted serves the public interest or needs reform, even revolution.


“Turning the Tide” assumes that colleges have the power to change student behavior by the messages sent through the admissions process, an assumption not everyone shares.  But is that the case? Will asking different essay questions and valuing community service in a different way produce a more caring student body?  More to the point, do colleges care about a student’s character, and should they?


Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that I have strong opinions on this topic.  I am fortunate to work at a strong academic school that nevertheless clearly states that we care more about the kind of person we produce than the kind of student we produce, and with my own children I was clear that I cared more about their character than achievement (although I always added that I didn’t know why I couldn’t have both).


I don’t know that higher education is as concerned with character formation or development as I might like.  Character is acknowledged as a goal in many colleges' mission statements, but does that carry over to the admissions process?  Several years ago a senior administrator asked me if I had written about a student’s character in a letter of recommendation.  He was disheartened, or at least disillusioned, when I responded that they didn’t care about character.


Colleges are more concerned about behavior.  Dishonest or criminal behavior (which may reflect lack of character) can disqualify a student for admission (except for blue chip athletes, who get a pass), but strong GPA’s and SAT/ACT scores almost always outweigh strong character.  In my experience the student most likely to be disappointed by the college process is the great kid who thinks that character and good citizenship will be plus factors.


Perhaps that’s as it should be.  Character can be hard to define, much less to measure.  Does the nice kid who does the right thing on a daily basis exhibit character, or is character defined only by how one deals with adversity or even tragedy?


It is also the case that discussions of character can reflect personal and cultural biases.  Back in the 1960’s in Seattle, a citizens' committee made life or death decisions about whom would receive access to kidney dialysis at a time when there weren’t enough machines for everyone who needed treatment.  The committee’s definition of good character, including church attendance and membership in civic groups, reflected a narrow definition without diversity of thought, ethnicity, or experience, leading one commentator to write that the Pacific Northwest was no place for a Henry David Thoreau with bad kidneys.


As described by Jerome Karabel in his history of college admission at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, The Chosen, discussions of character and conventions like letters of recommendation entered college admission back in the 1920’s during a paradigm shift from admitting the best student to admitting the best graduate.  That move made admission to college resemble admission to a country club. Karabel argues convincingly that the move was an attempt to lower the number of Jewish students being admitted to HYP. 


The challenges inherent in defining and measuring character don’t mean that a college or university shouldn’t value character.  The admissions process is a key component in building a campus community, and a successful community requires a critical mass of individuals with character just as much as it needs other kinds of critical mass. 


The “Turning the Tide” report argues that colleges have a responsibility to send messages about what colleges value, and that those messages should be about concern for others and benefitting society.  I wonder whether several trends in admission actually work in opposition to those goals.  The “well-rounded student” is out of vogue at the nation’s most selective schools, and yet there is some evidence that being well-rounded is important for success in life, if not in the college admissions process.  “Hyperselectivity” may reward a certain kind of student who is obsessed with achievement or better at gamesmanship.  What happens when there is a student body full of such students and what happens after they graduate?  Will future graduates of the most elite colleges have the same impact on society that previous graduates did?  I don’t know the answers, but I think the questions are worth asking.


The USA cable network has sought to distinguish itself from the competition by counterprogramming, establishing a niche by developing programming that is original and different.  I would love to see just one highly-selective college or university decide to counterprogram by focusing on enrolling a student body devoted to character rather than academic achievement alone.  That would require different messages to students and parents, it would require investigating non-cognitive measures and predictors of success, and it would require the confidence to care less about U.S. News rankings. It would be an interesting experiment, and I’m betting it would be successful.


In his “I Have a Dream” speech, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed of a day when children would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.  We have made much progress as a nation in the half-century since that speech, but we still focus on color of skin, only with an appreciation for the benefits greater diversity brings.  The next step in honoring Dr. King’s message is to value “ethicity” (a word I just made up) as well as “ethnicity.”