Colleges don’t think our kids have much character.
At least that’s the impression you might get from a widely supported new report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education last week. “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions” says our high school students are taught to “emphasize personal success rather than concern for others.”
It’s not like parents and teachers dreamed up this insane application process where kids have to list every last detail about their lives since the age of 3, including samples of term papers, videos of their dance recitals and pictures from their trip to build houses in Guatemala — not to mention endless personal essays about all the valuable life lessons they’ve learned by the age of 17.
It used to be that colleges were satisfied with a GPA, an SAT score and maybe a letter from the history teacher attesting to a student’s good work ethic. Now you practically have to compose a full-length memoir in order to be considered for the Ivy League. So “Turning the Tide” — which has been endorsed by more than 50 schools — proposes to, well, turn the tide.
To start with, colleges want students to start doing more “community service.” Presumably to address the complaint that only rich kids can engage in these hours of unpaid labor, students who work to help support their families can count their labors as well.
But then the college admissions process is supposed to “assess whether service has, for example, enhanced students’ understanding of their own ethical strengths, flaws, and blind spots, generated in them greater humility, or deepened their understanding and respect for those who are vulnerable or simply different from them.”
So students are now going to use the application not only to brag about their service but also tout their humility. Is there a better formula for encouraging insufferable teenagers?
The report also recommends other measures to change the character of students being admitted: reduce the number of Advanced Placement classes that students take, reduce the number of required extracurricular activities they are involved in and make SAT scores optional.
Let’s start with the first one. It’s become a trend in recent years to reduce or eliminate AP classes. (Scarsdale High School tried this a few years ago.) Students are too stressed, and AP classes — which are supposedly teaching college-level content — are only making things worse.
Yet, whatever else you can say about these courses, they offer a great deal of substance. History exams involve analyzing primary documents like the Declaration of Independence or the writings of Frederick Douglass and writing essays about what they mean and why they were important in history. Will they get this in any other high school course — or college one, for that matter?
Reducing the number of extracurriculars that students are involved in may seem like a bright idea. In fact, students have been advised for years that dabbling on the debate team, playing a couple of years of JV tennis and singing in the chorus for the high school musical won’t improve their chances at Harvard. Rather, you have to be a virtuoso violinist, an Olympic swimmer or a chess master.
Plus, reducing the sheer number of activities is not going to result in less stressed-out students or even students of greater character. They’ll probably be less well-rounded and more self-involved.
Finally, there’s the suggestion that the SATs be made optional — another idea that is hardly new. The goal here is clear: to make the measures by which an applicant is judged even fuzzier than before. This is no doubt part of an effort to get more economic and racial diversity without actually saying that colleges are lowering their academic requirements.
“Turning the Tide” suggests colleges “should also be asked to justify the use of admissions tests by providing data that indicates how scores are related to academic performance at their particular institution.” Of course, SATs have long been known to be the best predictors of academic performance across the board. So the idea is simply to put colleges that use such hard measures on the defensive.
If you want to know what’s stressing young people about the college process, why they employ professional counselors to edit their essays, add too many AP classes, pad their extracurricular resumes and try to game the system generally, it’s at least in part because the whole admissions process is so opaque.
Parents and students are engaged in a years-long procedure they don’t really understand in order to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a product whose content and goals are unclear at best. If you want students to demonstrate high ethical standards, college administrators might start by modeling it themselves.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.