Admissions deans from America’s leading colleges have joined forces with administrators from America’s most exclusive private high schools to offer a set of recommendations for making the college admissions regime place more emphasis on students’ community service and “ethical engagement.” Predictably, the report is being greeted with fawning praise in the media. The Washington Post‘s headline is representative: “To get into college, Harvard report advocates for kindness instead of overachieving.”
We are less optimistic about the approach described in the report, which essentially amounts to downplaying test scores and academic performance while supposedly leveling the playing field by giving a boost to students who appear to be honest, generous, and empathetic. First, while the authors contend that this strategy will give a boost to disadvantaged students, and make it more difficult for those who would “game the system,” we think it could well have the opposite effect. Requiring applicants to demonstrate a complex portfolio of personality traits will make the process even more opaque to disadvantaged students who are the first in their families to apply to college, and even more favorable to those who know the ins and outs of the system and can hire consultants to tell them what kind of essays elite admissions officers want to read.
Second, the idea that college admissions should be first and foremost a means of assessing the “character” of 17-year olds, rather than their academic promise, has a politically fraught history. It was used to discriminate against Jewish students through the 1950s, and it may be a smokescreen for colleges to penalize Asian applicants today. There are, after all, many different traits and experiences that can demonstrate a strong character, and admissions officers will inevitably emphasize the ones that fit with academia’s cultural and political preferences. That’s not to say admissions officers shouldn’t favor honest, upstanding young people when given the chance—it’s just that they should be wary of allowing perceived personality traits, rather than academic achievements, to become the overriding consideration.
We’ve said repeatedly that America’s existing higher education system as currently constituted is an obstacle to mobility for many disadvantaged students. The right way to fix it is for colleges to beef up recruitment in low-income and minority areas, and for our society to create pathways to success that don’t require an expensive four-year degree. But while those approaches would make life more difficult for college administrators, this approach plays conveniently into their interests. Indeed, it’s easy to see why admissions deans at colleges like Princeton and Harvard, and the headmasters at prep schools like Milton Academy and Horace Mann school (all of whom signed the report), think that this is the best path forward. All administrators like to enlarge their authority, and by making admissions a much more subjective exercise, the recommendations outlined in this report would give elite deans and headmasters even more leeway to pick and choose which students get a spot at the top colleges and which students don’t.