Monday, November 24, 2014

All the News That Fits--Another View


On Friday I received a thoughtful e-mail from Jon Reider shortly after the publication of my post about media coverage of college admissions.  Jon is a regular reader of the blog and correspondent as well as someone whose opinion I value, and I asked him if he would consider adapting his e-mail as a guest post.  Here it is:


Jim, 

I have mused a lot over the years about the best way to speak to the media.  (I do get called from time to time, so my ego is OK.)   The best reporters like Eric Hoover and Janet Lorin can often quote at more length, perhaps because their space constraints are less severe than the daily press.  I too have winced at seeing a half hour chat turn into a half-sentence bite.  I sometimes try to say something like, "This is the key point."   But that wouldn't always work, and I doubt reporters want to be instructed in their trade, any more than you and I do.  So, yes, we have to live with it and hope that the important stuff gets through, as it does in the second half of the article.

 We can remember the adage that "Dog bites man" is not news, but the reverse is.   Occasionally, reporters call trolling for a story: what is new this year?  What trends are you seeing?  That sort of thing.   They are looking for the "Man bites dog" story.   The problem, as we know, is that the daily grind of advising, editing, writing, waiting, and then either celebrating or consoling is much the same year after year.   The real news is slow and cumulative: more early applications, more test optional schools, more demonstrated interest schools, more selectivity.    Fine for Jim Fallows and the Atlantic Monthly, or Andrew Delbanco writing a book, but not of much value for a daily newspaper.

 What amuses me is the phenomenon itself, that Ms. Kaminer's hyper-sophisticated editors consider this front-page Sunday stuff (below the fold, to be sure).   The early emphasis on the ridiculous excesses plays into that, of course, just as the tale of the Cadillac-driving welfare queen made good fodder for Ronald Reagan way back when.  The extremes drive the noise machine.  One of these days, I hope to address the broader question of why elite college admissions has become a fetishized commodity (in Marx's sense), which is presumed to have magical value, akin to a Mercedes or Rolex.  In addition to spawning all the parasitic industries like test prep, organized community service ventures, independent counselors, and maybe even our own livelihoods, it has infiltrated late bourgeois culture with an array of popular books, movies, TV shows, in addition to the regular coverage in the Times, WSJ, and elsewhere.  College admissions has become a "myth" in the anthropological sense of a motivating and framing narrative through which a culture makes sense of itself.   How and why this has happened is worth exploring.

Jon Reider

Director of College Counseling

San Francisco University High School



I am thankful to Jon for his willingness to contribute, and as we approach a much-needed Thanksgiving break, I am thankful to all of you who read the blog and share your thoughts.  It is good to know that there are many colleagues who share core values about college counseling and admissions.

Friday, November 21, 2014

News That's Fit to Print


On Sunday The New York Times ran a front page story about the increasing number of applications students around the country seem to be submitting.  I was one of a handful of counselors interviewed and quoted, something good for my school and not so good for my ego and humility.

Since the article appeared I talked with a friend who was also quoted in the article.  He was bemused (I think) because a good thirty-minute conversation with reporter Ariel Kaminer showed up in the article as a five-word quote.  That’s the reality when dealing with the press, I suppose.  No matter how eloquent you might be and how much depth you might provide, a reporter has an angle and a limited number of words, and chances are you’ll end up on the cutting floor.

I actually originally learned that lesson as a writer myself.  This past weekend was the annual football game between Randolph-Macon and Hampden-Sydney colleges in Virginia, the oldest small-college football rivalry in the South.  It’s a great example of Division 3 athletics at its best, unlike the headlines and scandals produced at athletic powerhouses like UNC-Chapel Hill (which I’ll deal with in my next post), and I have been told (but haven’t confirmed) that Southern Living recently declared the rivalry the South’s greatest, beating out Alabama-Auburn, among others.

I’d like to think I had a little, very little, to do with that.  I know both schools well.  I graduated from and coached and taught at Randolph-Macon, and Hampden-Sydney Admissions Dean Anita Garland is my oldest and closest college admissions friend.  Nearly thirty years ago I wrote an article for Southern Living about the Randolph-Macon vs. Hampden-Sydney rivalry as exemplifying “The Game” which is more important than the rest of the season.  It was the first article I ever sold at a time when I thought I might pursue a free-lance writing career, and it was a big deal because Southern Living published one feature article a year in its “All-South Football Section” and that article was usually written by established writers such as Pat Conroy and Willie Morris.

My article nearly never saw the light of day.  The magazine accepted the article, sent a photographer, paid me, and my wife told everyone we knew, but on the day the issue hit the newsstands I rushed out, opened the magazine, and—no article.  I immediately understood how actors feel when their one scene in a movie is edited out.  Are you a published author when you’ve been paid but the article isn’t published?

I contacted my editor at Southern Living and learned that the magazine had lost advertising pages at the last minute, causing the article to be cut.  The good news was that they still planned to publish it twelve months later and wanted me to update it.  In particular they wanted me to get some quotes from the then-President of Hampden-Sydney, a colorful character.  When I called his office to set up a phone interview I was told that he was too busy because he was a finalist for another job and had to keep the phone lines open for the call from the search committee.  I completed the article sans quotes and it was ultimately published, and just after submitting the revised version I saw in the newspaper that the institution he was waiting on had announced its new President—not him.

The Times article illustrates the dilemma faced by those of us who have devoted our lives to counseling young people about a decision that is an important, even essential, developmental step in the transition from adolescence to adulthood.  On the one hand, it affirms the importance of our work when an article about college admissions is on the front page of The New York Times. At the same time, as a professional I find myself troubled by the messages (usually subtle, occasionally overt) sent to the public by media coverage of the college admissions process.

I talked twice with reporter Ariel Kaminer, who wrote the article and covers higher education for the Times, and she is clearly a pro who understands the issues.  She quoted me fairly and accurately, and I thank her for not making me look stupid, my biggest fear any time I talk to a reporter.  She chose not to quote what I thought was my most significant point.  I told her that I was not necessarily seeing the trend in my school, but that I emphasize to students that the increased competition at the top of the college food chain does not mean that they should apply to more colleges, but that they should apply more thoughtfully, knowing why each and every school is on their list.   

The second half of the article makes that point and that most college counselors think filing more than a reasonable number of applications (we can disagree about what that number is, but it is far lower than 30 or 56 or 86, all actual numbers from the article) is stupid and counterproductive.  The problem is the first half, which describes the alarming trend, and particularly the headline (which is written by someone other than the writer of the article).  A quick skim of the headline and article could very easily convince already crazed students and parents that applying to lots and lots of colleges is now the norm.

 It is easy to bemoan the fact that the media contribute to college admissions-related hype and anxiety, but I also don’t know that we should expect the media to promote our agenda.  What makes that harder is that I’m not sure our profession is agreed on what messages we should be sending to students and parents and the public.  Is college about fit or about prestige?  Is the admissions process a journey of self-discovery or a game?  Does the process reward substance or packaging?

There is too much mythology and too little accurate information about how college admission works.  If that bothers us (and it’s not clear that it does), it might be time for those of us on the front lines at colleges and on the other side of the desk to think about what the public needs to know and develop a vision statement for how and why the college search and admissions processes are essential in the growth of the student and in making our country better.  That kind of manifesto might just be what the New York Times considers “news that’s fit to print.”

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

If You Can't Say Something Nice


It was the first day of Christmas break, and I had stopped by the office for a couple of minutes on my way to do frantic, last-minute shopping.  As I was walking out the door, the phone rang.  Don’t answer, advised an internal voice to which I have since learned to pay heed.  But answer it I did.

On the other end of the line was the Director of Admissions at a large public university located outside Virginia.  He explained that on his desk was the application folder for one of my students.  I cringed when he named the student, whose record was, to put it politely, undistinguished (or perhaps distinguished by his lack of achievement).  On the student’s folder was a one-word note from the Associate Director—“Why?”  But, the Director continued, he had read my recommendation and there was something telling him he should give the student a chance.

I stayed silent, waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Finally he said, “I’m sorry, the best I can do is offer him summer school admission.”  As I was doing a celebratory dance (which you should be thankful you didn’t have to see), I responded that I thought that was fair.  As we said our goodbyes, he asked one final question, “Have you ever thought about becoming a creative writer?”

Describing the recommendation letter as creative writing does not mean that it is fiction, only that it is an art form. I’ve spent most of the past month thinking only about writing recommendations, but now that I seem to have survived November 1, I thought I would take a moment to reflect on the art of the recommendation.

We are about halfway through what my children used to call “recommendation” season, the time of year when I was grumpier than usual.  I am envious of colleagues who are able to get the bulk of their rec letters written during the summer.  I’ve never been able to do that, and might be too old to start now.  As a result, the rhythm of the fall is dictated by the next deadline and the number of letters that need to be written.  I wish I were as organized and disciplined in every part of my life as I am during recommendation season.

In the independent school world the value and impact of “the letter” may be overrated.  When I was first hired as a college counselor thirty years ago, it seemed that the ability to write was the only skill anyone was concerned about.  Today I suspect that rec letters from teachers have higher value, seen as more likely to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

The counselor recommendation letter serves several purposes.  It is part legal brief, making the case for the student and laying out evidence.  It is part character study, bringing the application and transcript to life.  It can also serve the function that footnotes serve in big, scholarly non-fiction books.  If the transcript is the primary text, the rec letter provides the footnotes.

In his book, The Call of Stories, the psychiatrist Robert Coles says that each person has a unique story and that the purpose of psychiatry is to discern that story.  In a perfect world, the job of a college counselor in writing a recommendation is to tell the student’s story.  Of course, we don’t live in a perfect world.  Our public school colleagues who are faced with ridiculous counseling loads and myriad other duties that push college counseling onto the back burner would need super powers to tell their students’ stories in any more than a superficial way.

I think there are four types of stories (if I’m missing others, I’d love to know):

            --The story of accomplishment

            --The story of growth

            --The story of adversity overcome

            --The story of potential

Obviously some of these are easier to tell than others.

How long should a recommendation letter be?  The prevailing wisdom is one page, that admissions officers have neither the time nor the interest in reading more.  I get that, but it will be no surprise to regular readers of this blog that brevity is a challenge for me and my letters are usually longer.  My thinking is that I have one opportunity to say what I need to say on the student’s behalf. I have friends at other schools that have moved to a bullet-point format in their letters, but I’m not ready to move in that direction.  The change I made several years ago is to frontload my letters so that the opening paragraph makes the argument in brief for a reader who chooses not to read the entire letter.

I have always believed that recommendation letters are read negatively, that if you don’t say something it is assumed that you can’t.  If you highlight how diligent a student is, it may be read as evidence that the student lacks ability.  A rec letter is an opportunity to put a student’s record in context, to explain a grade or a class or a teacher or life circumstances that are relevant in understanding the student’s journey.

Recommendation writers are like politicians, always looking for the perfect euphemism, the sufficiently vague phrase that is open to interpretation, preferably faulty.  Many years ago, Robert Thornton, an economics professor at Lehigh, developed the Lexicon of Inconspicuously Ambiguous Recommendations, or LIAR.  His examples were oriented toward job recommendations, and were meaningful for what they didn’t say rather than what they did.  The phrase “You will be fortunate to get this person to work for you” could be high praise or might be missing the important information (no one else has been able to get them to work).  In a college recommendation, describing a student as “entrepreneurial” could mean they sell drugs to all their friends, while “he hopes to become an engineer” might be missing the all-important (but he better learn to drive a train).  And should the statement, “I would place him in a class by himself” be interpreted figuratively or literally?

The biggest ethical issue attached to recommendation writing is what information to include and what to leave out.  I see my job as being an advocate for the student, presenting the best case I can for them, without compromising my credibility.  I have therefore never written a recommendation intended to be negative.  I try to follow my grandmother’s advice—“If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all.”

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

News and Updates


My posts this fall have all been pretty weighty (not to mention very preachy), and given that I’m drowning in a pile of college recommendations due November 1, this post will be a change of pace, providing news and updates on four issues I’ve addressed previously.

1)      In Indianapolis, the NACAC Assembly approved a number of changes to the Statement of Principles of Good Practice (SPGP), adding language having to do with the use of international agents, the fact that a high-school transcript should include all courses attempted (rather than being edited when a student retakes a course and earns a higher grade—a possible future topic for this blog), and how the May 1 Candidates’ Reply Date applies to institutionally-affiliated financial aid and scholarships.  I applaud the NACAC Admissions Practices committee under the leadership of Todd Rinehart for their work in updating the document.

 

One of the issues related to the May 1 deadline involves housing (for those of you who have memorized the SPGP chapter and verse, it can be found in section II.B.5.a).  Last spring I wrote about the practice of institutions requiring a housing deposit and making it non-refundable, and I have reason to believe that post may have helped move action on that issue.   

 

2)      Duke has become the first Common Application member to add a question on its application about sexual orientation/gender identity since the Common app’s 2011 decision not to include that topic among the questions asked as part of the application.  Duke’s question differs from other colleges such as Elmhurst College in Illinois and the University of Iowa that have previously asked similar application questions in that it invites students to write a short, optional essay rather than check a box.

 

I wrote about this issue back in December, 2012 after the University of Iowa announced that it was adding a question about sexual orientation/identity to its application.  At the time I applauded Iowa for being inclusive and welcoming to the LBGT community, but thought there were better ways to communicate that stance than through the application.  I continue to believe that the application should be used only to gather information that is relevant to making an admissions decision (which did not seem to be the case at Iowa), but by asking through an optional essay rather than an optional checkbox, Duke is giving students an opportunity to communicate something that is central to who they are and how they view the world, and that would seem relevant for admissions purposes.

 

The problem is that the prompt is vague enough that Duke is few students will know what the essay is designed to elicit.  Here is the prompt:  “Duke University seeks a talented, engaged student body that embodies the wide range of human experience; we believe that the diversity of our students makes our community stronger.  If you’d like to share a perspective you bring or experiences you’ve had to help us understand you better—perhaps related to a community you belong to, your sexual orientation or gender identity, or your family or cultural background—we encourage you to do so.  Real people are reading your application, and we want to do our best to understand and appreciate the real people applying to Duke.”

 

The essay prompt is deliberately vague and open-ended, and my wonder-about is how many essays Duke will get from students other than the target group.  Just this morning, one of my students who is applying Early Decision to Duke was talking about possible answers to that question, none of which are what the question is designed to elicit.  How many Duke applicants will write about their upper class cultural background, or their suburban New Jersey community?  Will Duke welcome an essay from a straight male who writes about his gender identity or sexual orientation?

 

3)      Bennington College has joined Goucher in making a high school transcript optional for applicants.  Bennington has introduced the “Dimensional Application” (the term has its origins in a quote about Bennington students by poet e.e. cummings) that gives Bennington applicants the opportunity to “curate” their applications by deciding what relevant information to include—portfolios, research or experiments designed and conducted by the student, writing (reflective and/or analytical), letters of recommendation, and even transcripts.  As I wrote about several weeks ago, I’m not sold on the idea that a transcript should be optional in evaluating a student’s readiness for college, but I like the concept that a student should have some control over what their “self-portrait” looks like and what media best communicates their essence.

 

4)      U.S. News has announced that two colleges have submitted incorrect data for the 2015 rankings.  What is different from previous cases is that there is no intent to manipulate data for the institution’s benefit.  Rollins College underreported the number of acceptances by 550 students, changing its acceptance rate from 47.2% to 58.8%.  That change did not impact Rollins ranking.  Lindenwood College in Missouri has been moved to the “Unranked” category because it reported 12,411 alumni donors when the actual figure was 2411.  Because alumni giving rate counts 5% of the ranking, that clerical error inflated Lindenwood’s ranking.  U.S. News rankings guru Bob Morse reported both cases in his Morse Code blog, but in Lindenwood’s case doesn’t provide any insight into how much the error would have impacted its ranking (I’m sure the formula is considered proprietary or top secret, but it would be fascinating to see how a mistake like in one category changes the overall ranking—on second thought, U.S. News probably doesn’t want anyone to realize how fluid the rankings are).  I have previous posted suggesting that U.S. News would best serve the public by putting all colleges in the “Unranked” category. Two other questions, one pragmatic and one philosophical:  Didn’t U.S. News find it odd that the number of alumni donors was off by 10000, and does that suggest that there is very little analysis of the data it receives?  And who thinks that alumni giving rate shows alumni loyalty and satisfaction rather than a successful annual giving operation?

 

That’s all for this edition.  I’ll be back after November 1.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Admissions Gluttony


In my last post I commented on Eric Hoover’s Chronicle of Higher Education article about the pressures faced by enrollment professionals and the attrition within the profession resulting from those pressures.

That article contained several examples of respected admissions deans who have left their jobs and institutions after the arrival of a new president.  One of those was Terry Cowdrey, who left her position as Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Colby College in Maine back in July.  (I have met Terry and respect her, but don’t know her well enough to describe her as a friend.)  Terry told the Chronicle that she left voluntarily, declining further comment, but others told Eric that she and Colby’s new president had different views about the college’s admissions strategy.

The article provides a glimpse into that strategy.  The new president, most recently executive vice president at the University of Chicago, said before arriving in Maine that he wanted to double the number of applications Colby receives each year.  Colby currently receives just over 5000 applications, so doubling that would be 10,000, or 1000 more applications than any other liberal arts college in the country currently receives.

Is that realistic?  A former Colby admissions officer quoted in the article answers no, but I would argue that’s actually not the right question.  Is doubling applications for a place like Colby desirable?  Would 10000 applications make Colby a better place?  What assumptions underlie such a strategy, and what hidden messages does it send?  Is more better (apparently not the same thing as mo’better)?

The conventional wisdom within higher education (and within the pages of U.S. News) is that more must be better, that increased popularity must mean increased quality.  But where’s the evidence for that assumption?  Did the University of Chicago, Colby President David Greene’s former employer, become a better place because it tripled application numbers by using the Common Application rather than its own application with the quirky essay questions?  Its “brand” may be more recognizable (although one of my students who visited last week found its reputation as “The Place Where Fun Goes to Die” still apt), and it may have more appeal for students who are prestige conscious, but has the increased popularity made it a better academic institution?  I am not arguing that it hasn’t, only that increased application numbers are not evidence of increased quality.

Does Colby need more applications?  Only if it, like my children, defines “need” as a synonym for “want.”  Colby already receives more than ten applications for every spot in the freshman class, and has an admission rate of 28%, both metrics that many very good colleges would give anything (hopefully not including their soul) to have.  There are several words that describe the condition where you have more than enough but aren’t satisfied.  When the entity in question is money, the operative word is greed.  When it’s food, the word is gluttony.  And when the motivation is keeping up with your neighbors in the NESCAC and Ivies, the description is envy.  That’s three of the Seven Deadly Sins right there.

I also wonder if there might be unanticipated consequences from setting a goal to double applications.  Increasing applications probably means also decreasing yield, because those extra applications would come mostly from students who would be adding Colby to a list including more selective/prestigious schools that they would likely choose first.  What messages does that goal send to the campus community?  In addition to implying to the admissions staff that they’ve failed by only generating ten applications for every spot in the class, it might also send a message to the current student body that the administration is embarrassed to have to admit students like them.

There are some broader issues here that apply not just to Colby, but to all highly selective institutions.  If one accepts the adage that one’s strengths can also be weaknesses, then just as being highly selective has advantages, it also has limitations.

One of those limitations is a distorted view of reality, the same distortion that political leaders who don’t ever have to buy bread or milk and see only places that have been carefully prepared to look their best.  Back in the 1980’s President Ronald Reagan visited my wife’s employer, Reynolds Metals.  Not only did the state and city create a massive traffic jam by closing major arteries so that the Presidential motorcade had smooth sailing from the airport into Richmond, but Reynolds did five years worth of painting and planned maintenance in the month leading up to Reagan’s visit.  Best of all, there was a plan to paint the grass green for the President.  It revealed a lot about how Presidents lose touch with the common man.

Something similar happens to colleges and universities with far more applicants than spots in the freshman class.  Recently I attended a breakfast meeting with representatives from five highly-selective institutions, all of which have admit rates below 20%.  They agreed that probably 90% of applicants are qualified, but that very few are “interesting.”  I understand where they’re coming from, and quite frankly would probably use the same kind of language if I were in their shoes, but I also think that the “interesting” test is regrettable.  Isn’t that what a college education should do, help make a young person “interesting” in a way they may not be in high school due to maturity or background? Shouldn’t the college experience be transformative for a young person?

Seeking to double applications is clearly aspirational, and perhaps setting goals that are seemingly unachievable is necessary for an institution to improve, but I’d like to see colleges be less driven by metrics and more driven by mission.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

War of Attrition


This past summer I had the opportunity to spend five weeks in Europe.  My wife and I rented an apartment in the small Italian city of Lucca for a month, followed by a week of travel to Paris and London.  It was an amazing experience (here’s a link to the blog I wrote during the trip), but once I returned home all it took to suck out all the inner peace and good will I brought back from Italy was one two-hour meeting at school.

I thought about that last Monday upon returning to the office after being in Indianapolis at NACAC.  I knew I would pay for being away, but didn’t anticipate how fast the pile of “stuff” (a more polite vocabulary word than I started to use) awaiting me would make NACAC seem like a distant memory.

I view the NACAC Conference as the end of “preseason” each fall.  September is about getting back into the rhythm of the school year, and as soon as I return home I know that I will be consumed by deadlines and rec letters to be written, so NACAC is a chance to renew friendships, commiserate, and recharge.  The best part about NACAC this year was the number of people who stopped me to say that they read and even enjoy this blog. Thanks—your words mean more than you can know.

The hot topic during informal conversations at NACAC was Eric Hoover’s Chronicle of Higher Education article on the admissions dean’s chair as “the hottest seat on campus.”  The article highlights the pressures faced by those professionals responsible for enrollment on the college side and a level of turnover among Deans of Admission and VPs of Enrollment that is alarming.  It didn’t take long in any conversation to hear about another senior member of our profession who is retiring, in a new job, or simply out of work.  Lest anyone think that the grass is greener on the secondary side of the desk, at NACAC I talked with a close friend, someone I consider an icon of the college counseling profession, who is likely to leave his school at the end of the year because of Board and administrative pressure to increase the number of Ivy acceptances at the expense of fit.

It is human nature to add 2+2 and get 5, to interpret a few examples as evidence of a larger trend, but I sense of level of attrition within our profession that would constitute a crisis if it occurred in a student body. If I was the melodramatic type and wanted to draw a tenuous connection to world events, I might even suggest that we are locked in an undeclared war for the soul of college admissions, a conflict of cultures between those of us who believe that admissions is about a student’s journey of self-discovery and those who believe that higher education is first and foremost a business. 

If we’re in a war, it’s a war of attrition. Our adversaries have already seized “higher” ground (Boardrooms, Presidents’ offices), and we will have lost the war when there are no longer enough of us left. Reading Eric’s article brought to mind the Jimmy Buffett song, “A Pirate Looks at 40,” which includes the line “My occupational hazard is my occupation’s just not around.”  Our occupation isn’t endangered, but our profession might be.

So what can we do about it? We need to increase our efforts on two different fronts.  The first is giving more attention to attracting good people to the profession.  The recent NACAC survey report on “Career Paths for Young Professionals” suggested that many of us stumble into this profession, and that may no longer be good enough. The future of the profession is dependent on attracting young people who understand that helping young people make decisions about their future is a noble calling, who share a vision of admissions as more than filling the class and improving the profile, and who also happen to be just as committed/neurotic as most of us are.  Once in the field, we need to keep them. The enrollment management truism that it’s easier to retain an already enrolled student than recruit and enroll a new student holds true for us as well.

The second front is even more important but also more difficult.  We need to find ways to reach out and engage in dialogue with our bosses, the new generation of college presidents and provosts (and school heads) who don’t understand (and may not care about) the values that guide the college admissions profession.  If we don’t tell our story, who will?

Some of that burden is on each of us, but there’s also a role for organizations like NACAC and the College Board to play.  When I served as President of NACAC I got irritated by those who expected NACAC to legislate every aspect of college admissions, so I fully expect that my good friends Jeff Fuller and Joyce Smith will cringe if and when they read this, but one of NACAC’s roles is representing and defending the profession, and the profession (and professionals) are under attack in ways we haven’t seen before.  Presidents and Boards have not historically been defined as stakeholders by NACAC, but they are powerful influences on our ability to do our jobs and serve students.  I would like to see NACAC think about ways to offer professional development programming about admissions and enrollment management issues for Boards and Presidents.  The College Board certainly has both the influence and the resources to aid in that effort.

Is it an uphill battle?  No question. 

Will it work? Maybe.

Can we afford not to stand up for what we believe? No.

 

There is one other item from Eric Hoover’s article that I want to address, but I’ll do it in my next (hopefully shorter) post.    

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Transcript-Optional Admission


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.