Two Steps to a Saner, Sounder Admissions Process

We must make structural changes across thousands of colleges, Carol Barash argues -- not just rely on the good intentions of a privileged few.

November 2, 2015

It has been clear for some time that the American college admissions system is fundamentally flawed. Between the Common App’s monopoly over the admissions process and U.S. News & World Report's rankings -- which give institutions points for selectivity and higher test scores -- it has been nearly impossible for individual colleges to change the way they recruit and admit students who are a good fit for their specific programs.

The Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success -- a group of more than 80 higher education institutions that includes the Ivies, Stanford University, top liberal arts colleges and major state universities -- represents bold steps in a new direction. One hopes that the range of colleges and universities included in the coalition will allow each of its members to keep up pressure in three key ways: shifting from tests and transcripts to a more robust, portfolio-based admissions process; ensuring financial-aid transparency; and providing not only admissions advice about the institution itself but also helping the widest group of students in its community to navigate, as they say at the KIPP network of charter schools, “to and through college.”

The shift from a college admissions system that serves colleges to one that serves students and families is a national imperative if we wish to train young people for the jobs they will discover and the lives they will lead in the 21st century -- most of which do not even exist today.

To cut through the current logjam, however, we need structural changes across thousands of colleges, not just the good intentions of and coordination among the most privileged few. Individual colleges can’t make systemic change. And the coalition has received considerable resistance, as New York Times columnist Frank Bruni has described, since it presented its plan at the annual conference of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling.

If we want to change fundamentally the things that are broken with the current system, we need to go further, instituting a new framework that improves outcomes for colleges, parents and, most of all, students. We must tackle the tough questions: How can we steer the most students to colleges where they will thrive? How can we make the admissions process both challenging and a level playing field? How can we make financial aid fair and transparent?

I recommend a two-step process similar to medical school admissions. It requires colleges and universities to:

1. Establish a simple and consistent across-the-board threshold. It includes the student’s transcript, standardized test scores, activities résumé, school writing sample and a short personal essay. Students can apply to a limited number of schools -- say, 15 -- for one price. Students who receive free or reduced lunch receive 100 percent fee waivers. Colleges read the folders and decide who is academically qualified. They rank all students likely, possible or no. And they provide information about how much financial aid the student will receive if admitted later.

All financial aid is based on need (in relation to that institution’s ability to provide aid). If a college is “gapping” (admitting a student but not providing sufficient aid), the amount of debt the student will be required to assume is clear to the student and parent. There are no early admissions and no exceptions, not even for athletes.

This step provides a sanity check for students: they must apply to colleges where they are academically qualified, or they’ll end up with nothing. It also makes the first step more helpful for parents, who can see how likely their children are to get admitted and to receive financial aid at different colleges. This first, fact-based round enables colleges to select a smaller group of students to review more intensively and explore who the best candidates are for their particular programs and priorities.

2. Explore in some depth the fit between each student and the institution. Colleges identify those students who have the intellectual, personal and moral characteristics to be good citizens in their communities. And students determine which colleges will nurture their particular intellectual and personal ambitions, their sense of who they want to become in college and in life. Colleges can be innovative here: they might consider assessment centers, as suggested by Adam Grant, professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. (Such activities can be done online or in person, with the assumption that every aspect of this second phase will be paid by the college for all students.) Colleges can also try different types of writing assignments (as at Bard College), videos (like Goucher College), inventions, op-eds, interviews -- whatever they like, and in whatever combination they like, in order to get to know each student better. This should be fun and empowering for students, who should be encouraged to reveal who they think they would become at each college that they are considering.

At the end of this second round, students and colleges rank their preferences, and a computer optimizes the outcomes -- like the internship match in medicine.

This is actually how the core admissions work is done now for many state universities’ selective honors programs: a computer accepts the top tier and rejects the bottom. In a second round, students submit additional essays, videos and other projects, and the college then decides who is admitted to premier programs -- which include financial aid packages as well as smaller, more selective classes.

You could argue that transforming the tangled and misaligned assumptions of the current jury-rigged system into something this clean and simple will be extremely difficult. Indeed, it will take significant collective will to achieve something equitable and empowering for students of all backgrounds. But this two-step process is fair, transparent and fun -- three things that the current system is not and that the coalition’s ambitious opening gambit, by itself, cannot ensure.


Carol Barash is the founder and CEO of Story2, the company that expands writing fluency and self-advocacy through storytelling.


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