You can’t get 50 people in this country to agree on most issues, but it seems that you can get them to agree that college admissions reform is necessary. It is not surprising therefore that the initial report of Harvard’s Making Caring Common project had a star-studded list of endorsements — representatives from a whole host of top colleges, as well as undergraduate admissions heads from the entire Ivy League and even administrators at college prep schools, like Milton and Horace Mann. Although the Stanford and UC Berkeley administrations declined to co-sign the report, it is nonetheless the closest the educational community has ever gotten to an elite consensus.
As the Editorial Board, we are interested in what the report has to offer. We are concerned that, to a large extent, the Harvard report has only received the extensive support it has because its recommendations are sufficiently vague to elicit broad agreement. The general goals of the report are promising. But we are not convinced that the requirements are explicit enough to be institutionalized across the country, and therefore doubt that the report will encourage real change.
The report made its biggest splash by arguing that college admissions officers should de-emphasize grades, test scores and course difficulty. It declared that colleges should focus more on evaluating their applicants’ commitment to community service and ethical thoughtfulness. But it also places these reforms within a larger framework that prioritizes diversity of student experiences over activities that are no more than resume boosters. The report justifies the necessity of this change by highlighting the currently inadequate levels of socioeconomic and ethnic diversity, and thus seeks to “level the playing field” for underprivileged applicants.
The first set of reforms — focusing less on tangible achievements — appears laudable, in the sense that people from underprivileged backgrounds have lower grades and test scores on average, and less access to the same academic privileges. So, at first glance, it seems a lower prioritization of academic achievement would be a promising first step towards leveling the playing field. But we wonder if it would be more appropriate to simply emphasize existing diversity initiatives, like affirmative action or outreach trips to areas that the college admissions industry doesn’t always serve. If there are already systems in place to increase diversity and student representation, it seems to make more sense to work within these systems than to go entirely against the grain, unless the current systems can’t be improved to achieve the same goals.
The second set of reforms — emphasizing personal development and growth — are also well-founded. We want our colleges to educate the next Neil Armstrong, not the next Bernie Madoff, and we want to empower these graduates to do good in the world. The report’s call for displaying a commitment to sustained and meaningful community service seems aligned with this goal.
But if we shift the emphasis of college admissions from AP classes to community services, we’re just going to see the commodification of community services as an extracurricular activity. Stanford applicants will simply put insane hours into community service. Soup kitchens will become the new AP Chemistry, and the concerns the report expresses about stress levels for middle- and upper-class applicants will not be solved, just reappropriated.
We also wonder what problems this report’s suggested changes are really solving. If these reforms seek to balance the playing field through a more holistic process, what criteria will be used to evaluate “lived” experiences and the value they contribute? If essays become the most important part of an application, it still places underprivileged students at a disadvantage, since writing skills are even more localized to private schools than AP courses, and emphasizing written responses only serves to shift the admissions process focus from one of private school’s greatest strengths to another.
Prioritizing experience over test scores is something colleges could be doing right now and simply don’t, and we are not sure how the new proposals will encourage this shift in the evaluation process. Given the current college application process, we are concerned that these recommendations may not be effective when a great deal of colleges’ prestige is tied to their matriculating students’ high GPAs and test scores. It is difficult to imagine colleges, which compete heavily for students and funding, willingly doing something that would probably lower those numbers that contributed to their prestige in the first place.
If we want to change that system (and it’s not entirely sure whether we should), the commitment must be wholesale. Right now, colleges are all terrified to enact the report’s reforms unilaterally, likely because they fear that being the first to do so would hurt their reputations and their rankings.
The appeal of the Harvard report is that so many schools signed on to it. The report seeks to make its recommendations a national norm that everybody will sign on to, and we think that’s a good idea. We believe that there needs to be a stronger commitment to ethnic and economic diversity, because of inequities long-rooted in the past. But we are doubtful if this set of reforms is the best way to achieve that goal.
The report’s website declares that the report is “the first step in a two-year campaign that seeks to substantially reshape the existing college admissions process.” We are very interested in seeing what the next two years will have in store. Without a major commitment to change, though, we believe that the promise of the report won’t amount to much.
Contact the Editorial Board at opinions ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.