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Kinder College? Some Schools Are Striving To Make Applying Less Stressful05:48Download

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Roger Wang is a high-achieving low-income student. He just graduated from high school and has a scholarship at Rice University. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
Roger Wang is a high-achieving low-income student. He just graduated from high school and has a scholarship at Rice University. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Claire Sheth has four children. Her oldest is about to be a sophomore at Lexington High School. But it's a conversation with her 10-year-old she recalls.

"And she said, 'Mom, my friend was talking about all of the extracurricular activities that she has, and she's got like 10 activities, and she hates all of them,' " Sheth said.

Her daughter said the girl's parents had chosen all her activities but one.

"And I said to my daughter, 'Why do you think that her parents make that choice?' And she says, 'They're just worried about her being able to get into a good college,' " Sheth said.

Then there are students like Roger Wang. He doesn't have a lot of extracurriculars.

"I feel slightly at a disadvantage, but you gotta play the cards you've been been dealt with," Wang said.

Wang runs cross-country and was in the Waltham High School chess club. He's a high-achieving low-income student. He just graduated from high school and has a scholarship at Rice University. He starts this fall. When he was applying for college, he felt that he could not compete with wealthier classmates when it came to listing extracurricular activities.

"Obviously, some kids, their parents are super-wealthy and they have a lot of connections," Wang said. "You have kids go across the world to help out, or helping out their father's company."

'We Want To Change Those Messages'

"The signal that colleges tend to be sending is what's important to us is high achievement, and large numbers of achievement," said Richard Weissbourd, who wants to help both the high-achieving low-income student and the over-scheduled child.

He says the current college admissions process values the wrong things.

"It isn't whether you're an invested member of your community, or a good and decent person day to day," Weissbourd said, "and we want to change those messages, so that's why we embarked on this project with college admissions deans."

Weissbourd directs the Human Development and Psychology program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He got more than 100 college admissions deans, including the entire Ivy League, to sign onto the project. Among the colleges' goals: to reduce pressure to achieve on high school students in communities with high-performing schools, like Lexington.

But Weissbourd explains that the project has another goal, and that's to improve access to college for low-income students.

"Right now, there are a lot of low-income kids who are working to support their families, or taking care of a younger sibling, or taking care of a sick relative," Weissbourd said. "They may be doing that 20 hours a week, but what they're doing does not count as service on their college applications. You can go to Costa Rica or Belize for a month and paint a house, and that does count for service, and that just doesn't seem fair to us. It didn't seem fair to a lot of folks, a lot of college admissions deans."

At MIT -- one of the colleges on board with the idea of transforming admissions -- the dean of admissions, Stu Schmill, says his office no longer values one kind of extracurricular activity over another.

"We know that there are a lot of students out there that have significant responsibilities at home," Schmill said. "They have to work to earn money for the family, or they have to take care of younger siblings, or there is some elder care that they are having to take care of."

On its application, MIT has reduced the number of extracurricular activities students can list to just four, and it's stopped asking them what they did in ninth grade.

Schmill explained how else MIT has changed what it tells applicants.

"We want students to take the most challenging classes that are most appropriate for them, that will allow them to grow and learn the most in the subjects that they're most interested in, but they don't need to do that in every single subject," he said.

One year into the project, the proposal has run into some obstacles. One is that many colleges don't feel they can afford to take on more low-income students, in part because they don't have big endowments.

Seeking Empathy

A chief aim of the project is to form more empathetic college students.

Sara Konrath studied college student empathy while she was a researcher at the University of Michigan. She found a decline in empathy among college students since the 1970s, and especially since 2000.

Konrath is skeptical that colleges can change competitive behavior.

"For any admissions criteria you set up, there's going to be some way to game the system, and it's one thing to look good on paper by saying you are volunteering regularly or involved in certain causes, but you can't really determine motivation based on that, so I don't know how they'd actually screen properly to make sure they're not getting kids who are just trying to game the system a bit," she said.

At Milton Academy, Rod Skinner, the director of college counseling, was part of the original group that proposed this change in college admissions. Skinner acknowledges the skepticism, but says you have to start somewhere.

"We are over-stressing the kids," Skinner said. "We are also driving them to behavior that was very self-centered and in some ways very unhealthy."

Skinner suggests high schools can decrease pressure by de-emphasizing advanced placement classes and by eliminating awards ceremonies.

The initiative has only been underway for a year, too early to say if it's working. But Skinner and the rest of the group are hopeful that they can take a whack at reforming college admissions.

This segment aired on July 7, 2017.

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Fred Thys reports on politics and higher education for WBUR.

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