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Commentary: Let's Level The Playing Field In The College Admissions Game

Students from privileged backgrounds, writes guest columnist Jacob Murray, know how to play the college admissions game. (Johan Carlstrom/Flickr)MoreCloseclosemore
Students from privileged backgrounds, writes guest columnist Jacob Murray, know how to play the college admissions game. (Johan Carlstrom/Flickr)

What does it take to get into a top college? Good grades? High SAT scores? Service trips to Central America? All of these help -- but what might be most important is knowing how to play the college admissions game.

Playing the game means knowing what college admissions officers look for and rate highly, then carefully cultivating and amassing the experiences and credentials to match, beginning as early as middle school.

There are many ways to play the game. Students can build their service résumé by working in soup kitchens, early child care centers or environmental clean-up projects. They can map out the “right” high school courses and augment them with additional coursework at local colleges. They can begin SAT prep as early as freshman year. They can select clubs, athletics and other extracurricular activities that may hold weight with colleges. They might even display their entrepreneurial skills by starting a business venture or community project.

And there is no shortage of college planners or education consultants to guide students — and their families -- in playing the game, for a fee: on average about $4,000 a year but often as high as $10,000. In fact, the profession has exploded. It’s now a $400 million industry, according to the Independent Educational Consultants Association. There were 1,500 professional education consultants in 2008, more than 8,000 in 2015 — and another 10,000 to 15,000 working part time. The result: Students of privilege get into college at much higher rates than those with less means.

One counter has been the growing number of colleges and universities that have made the SAT optional, including George Washington University, the largest institution yet. Once hailed as the path to a more meritocratic admissions process — and one that would not favor applicants of privilege — the SAT is now widely viewed as biased against disadvantaged students and other student subgroups.

Yet here again the privileged win out. A recent study from the University of Georgia shows that even when selective colleges make the SAT or other tests, such as the ACT, optional in their admission process, it is still those students who know how to play the game and get the most non-test credentials who get in at high numbers.

So beyond making the SAT and other tests optional, how can we change the admission process to make it harder to game? How can we level the playing field for disadvantaged students?

A new report from Making Caring Common, a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, makes the compelling case that the college admissions process should focus less on personal accomplishments and more on “ethical engagement” — that is, authentic demonstrations of empathy, service to others and commitment to the common good. The report’s authors argue that these values aren’t just important and worth promoting to students and families. They can also level the admissions playing field by creating new metrics that weight the social and emotional attributes that all students embody in some way.

The Harvard report suggests three ways that college admissions can emphasize ethical engagement and de-emphasize personal accomplishments:.

1. Promote more meaningful contributions to others, community service and engagement with the public good.

2. Assess students’ ethical character and contributions to others in ways that reflect varying types of family and community contributions across race, culture and class.

3. Redefine achievement in ways that level the playing field for economically diverse students.

A college might give special consideration, for example, to applicants who have had to work to support their families at an early age, served as a caregiver to younger siblings or organized efforts to support a needy family member. Colleges could intentionally inquire about such experiences in admissions interviews and application questions.

In addition to placing greater value on nonacademic, ethical attributes, colleges should seek prospective students in nontraditional ways that are less dependent on the resources and assertiveness of students and their families. For example, colleges might put out “Requests for Applicants” to high schools, asking them to nominate students who exemplify certain ethical aptitudes, experiences and accomplishments, such as those outlined in the Harvard report.

Distributed widely and directly to school leaders, teachers, guidance counselors, coaches and community youth organizations, such requests would serve as a first step in the admission process. The nomination process might be anonymous, to prevent students and families from influencing school staff. Admission officers would then follow up to vet the students and encourage promising ones to apply.

Of course, all students need guidance and information from families, schools and community partners well in advance of applying to college. Many schools provide support and key resources. So do college prep, access and success programs, such as Bottom Line, Upward Bound, The Posse Foundation, South Central Scholars and uAspire, to name a few. But that’s not enough. The admissions process -- the admissions game -- needs to change. Rethinking what colleges value and how they find students would be two steps in the right direction.

Jacob Murray is the faculty director for professional education at the Boston University School of Education. Follow him on Twitter @jake_murray44.

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