If a biotech researcher developed a drug that could reverse the effects of Alzheimer's disease, few people would care if he or she was motivated by a love of mankind, a love of science or the desire to make a fortune. Why should they? All sorts of people do good and bad in the world for all sorts of reasons.
That thought comes to mind because of a new report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which offers some troubling recommendations for how colleges and universities should rethink admissions. The report, titled "Turning the Tide," rightly calls for leveling the playing field so that wealthy applicants don't have so much of an advantage over lower-income students. That's definitely a worthwhile objective. But the report's main goal is stated in its subtitle: "Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions." More than 70 deans of admissions and other college leaders have endorsed it.
According to the report, students show too much concern about their own futures and not enough about serving the community. But even if that's true, is it the job of college admissions departments to right that wrong? The report recommends tweaking admissions to favor applicants who have shown a serious, years-long commitment to a local cause over those who have dabbled in various kinds of community service at home or abroad. It also calls for reducing the importance of advanced high-school classes and SAT scores, and giving more credit to applicants who hold part-time jobs and who help out at home.
On the surface, those changes sound appealing. Certainly, for too long students have gotten points in college admissions for displaying "leadership" and "global awareness" by going on expensive overseas trips that combine socializing and adventure tours with a volunteer project, such as helping to build a playground at an African village school. For the $5,000 or more per student that such trips generally cost, the village could accomplish a lot more on its own.
Yes, of course colleges should downgrade meaningless resume-polishing that clearly can be done only by the affluent. Richard Weissbourd, lead author of the Harvard report, said he knows of wealthy parents who shelled out money to start a nonprofit school in Botswana just so that their daughter could claim on her college application that she had created it.
But it's another matter for colleges to attempt social engineering through the admissions process. Do we really want admissions officers making glib moral judgments about which types of community service are inherently more worthy than others? Or decreeing that a student who tries several different kinds of volunteer work — or spends extra hours on chemistry experiments or writes short stories instead of feeding the hungry or craves the challenge of multiple Advanced Placement exams — is less deserving of a college education than one who works for several years on a local cause?
If colleges adopt the recommendations, and there are signs that at least some plan to, that won't mean that ambitious students no longer turn in professionally polished applications. More likely they'll force themselves into another mold that will be no more meaningful to them, no more reflective of their true interests, than a slew of AP courses or a long list of extracurricular activities.
And though it's a fair-minded idea to give applicants credit for helping their families, colleges considering this should prepare to be inundated by essays about students who wake up at 4:30 each morning to clean the toilets so that their ailing or hard-working parents won't have to. Among other things, these kinds of stories can't be verified.
The goal of giving high-achieving, low-income students a better shot at being accepted by colleges is of course worth pursuing, but the recommendations on this score also fall short. Rather than reducing the emphasis on SAT scores, which are a fairly good indicator of freshman success in college, colleges should limit the number of times students can sit for the tests to no more than twice. That would eliminate the advantage gained by wealthier kids paying to take the test multiple times with only the best scores on each section being reported to colleges. It might also reduce the role of expensive test-prep tutors, who often work for years with students as they take the test over and over. Serious test prep these days can cost between $4,000 and $20,000.
And rather than discouraging students from taking advanced placement courses, colleges should take into account — as many already do — the fact that some schools don't offer a broad range of such courses.
If colleges really want more authentic applications from students and less stress and burnout in high school, they should stop insisting on "well-rounded" candidates who do everything perfectly. Instead, they should credit students for whatever it is they do that truly reflects themselves and that might make them successful when they get to college. That might be writing short stories late into the night or holding down a regular part-time job or getting involved in a meaningful extracurricular activity. Colleges could de-emphasize essays, which can be polished by expensive private college counselors, and give added weight to letters of recommendations, which tell more about the day-to-day mettle of an applicant. And if colleges really want to make admissions fairer, they could start with two steps that aren't even mentioned in this report:
Reduce the admissions preference for athletes. A January report by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation found that at the most selective colleges, athletic preference disproportionately gave an advantage to affluent, white students. That's because many of the sports — crew, lacrosse, fencing, water polo and the like — aren't offered at most public high schools, and require joining private leagues and clubs for training.
Eliminate the admissions boost for legacy applicants — the offspring or siblings of alumni. Such preferences have nothing to do with an applicant's quality, and everything to do with a family's history of access to the college.