Opinion - Turning the Tide II Turns the Tide the Wrong Way

Reading the original Turning the Tide report was like taking a deep breath of mountain air right after a spring thunderstorm. The report was uniquely refreshing and uplifting. With this week’s release of Turning the Tide II the air surrounding the report has turned pungent much like the swamps of Jersey in the summertime.

Where the initial Turning the Tide report focused on what colleges could and should be doing to leverage their collective power to rectify the broken college admissions process, the new report shifts the burden to parents of college-bound teens.

The initial Turning the Tide report called on colleges to send an unambiguous signal to students and their families that they will authentically weigh non-cognitive behavioral character skills and non-academic activities as part of the admissions process. Observing how college admissions processes inevitably sent powerful messages about what colleges value and how those messages influenced the way parents raised their children, the call-to-action was to inject character and service into the process to stop producing “over-stressed overachievers.” Instead of participating in countless (and meaningless) extracurricular activities, feeling pressured to take irrelevant AP courses, or studying ad nauseam for SAT/ACT exams, the report encouraged students to engage in more meaningful community and family activities.

The recent college admissions scandal emphatically shows that parental perception of elite college admissions has not changed. Parents still view grades and test scores as the be all, end all because colleges generally have failed to take any concrete actions to alter this perception. Yet, the new Turning the Tide report inexplicably turns the spotlight away from colleges and points it squarely on to the face (or up some other body part) of parents. Why?

Most parents have a good faith determination to do whatever it takes to help their children. Frequently lacking even a basic understanding of how college admissions actually work in the 21st century, parents rely on information provided by school counselors, U.S. News & World Report college rankings, folklore, and the College Board for guidance in shaping their approach towards college admissions. The looping mantra they will hear from these sources is the singular importance of GPA, test scores, AP courses, and college rankings. This advice paints an extremely narrow path towards college admissions success and presents students and parents with no margin for error. The problem is GPA caps out at 4.0 (without weighting) and SAT scores cap out at 1600. With just 1,962 of 42,749 candidates securing spots in Harvard’s Class of 2022, how much variance among applicant grades and test scores was there really? Realizing this, College Board keeps profiting on this fear by feeding the market with more unnecessary AP courses.

Turning the Tide had it right the first time, if colleges change the rules then parents will change their ways.

Even more head-scratching is the way Turning the Tide II lumps middle-class parents in with upper-income parents when criticizing the actions they take to try to better their children’s futures. As misguided as some of those actions might be, many middle-income parents spend much more than they can realistically afford in an effort to provide their children with a chance at a better life than they’ve had. If colleges were transparent and authentic with their messaging, these parents could relax and take a more moderate view of college admissions today.

Here are some suggestions for making tangible changes to the college admissions game.

A. Deemphasize the need for colleges to pad the “Top Line” as the number of applications a college receives should not be gamed.

Parents of college-bound students have often been blamed for “gaming” the system but it is hypocritical to blame parents when colleges are the master of the game. For years, colleges have manipulated students and their families to increase the number of applications they receive. Beyond enticing non-qualified students to apply, many colleges have eliminated supplemental application essays and have gone test-optional in an effort to pad their “top-line” by making it easier for students to apply. Why? So they can reject more students and then report a lower acceptance rate to ranking services. Lower acceptance rates make colleges appear to be more selective and will boost their rankings.

Here are three ways we can rid the system of this manipulation:

(1) Following the lead of Stanford University, all colleges should cease reporting admitted student acceptance data. This measurement serves no purpose other than to increase a college’s U.S. News & World Report ranking. Elite schools leverage their brand and use their sophisticated enrollment management tools to canvas prospective applicants for the sole purpose of generating applications from students who stand no chance for acceptance. Unless we know how many students were accepted out of the pool of truly “qualified” applicants, there is really nothing here that matters.

(2) The Common Application, The Coalition Application, and The Universal Application should place a limit on the number of colleges where an applicant’s files can be sent. We propose limiting this to 5 schools (students could apply to more than 5 schools by submitting paper applications). This hard cap for online application platforms will drastically reduce the number of applications received by colleges. Rather than taking a scattershot approach, students and their families will need to carefully research those colleges where the students will stand the best chance for admission taking into account net cost, fit, and programs. This way applicants will be forced to do their homework and schools will not be rewarded for artificially manipulating their acceptance rates.

(3) Colleges can continue to rely on big data predictive analytics to uncover where there are more first-generation and Pell grant recipient students and recruit students to meet their geographic and cultural diversity needs.

(4) Limiting the number of applications submitted by online application platforms will also enable colleges to spend more time reviewing each applicant’s credentials and assessing their credibility. In a recent article published in The Atlantic, Jeff Selingo writes:

An ever-increasing number of applications have swamped admissions offices in recent years, resulting in faster reading of files. Whereas once readers could spend 16 to 20 minutes on a given applicant, the average is now around eight minutes. The high volume of applications and small number of staff leave the process vulnerable to embellishment or outright lying, especially at selective colleges where the competition for a scarce number of seats is fierce.
— Jeff Selingo, The Atlantic

B. Open the “Black Box” by requiring colleges to fully disclose acceptance decision criteria.

We have seen this work in the food industry where vendors are required to disclose ingredients and nutritional information in a uniform and understandable fashion. Let’s place the same disclosure requirements on colleges. If they consider the ability to pay and likelihood to enroll when making their decisions, such criteria need to be disclosed to the public. If they consider community service and character attributes as part of their decisionmaking process then that too must be disclosed.

We are not advocating removing subjective criteria from the decisionmaking process, but students and their families should be clearly told what colleges are looking for in their applicants so they can be informed consumers.

Along these lines, we also encourage colleges to post truthful disclaimers to negate generally held and preconceived notions about college admissions. An example of such disclosure could be “Perfect grades and test scores will not guarantee your admission to this institution.”

C. The college application should be modified to incorporate relevant and actionable data

The Common Application brought uniformity to the college application. It is also a major contributor to the college admissions dysfunction we are experiencing today. Every college is different and, by extension, have different needs when assessing students for admission. The only real similarity among the eight Ivy League schools is that they belong to the Ivy League. Engineering schools have different needs than their liberal arts counterparts. Public universities provide a different college experience than private institutions. Students who will succeed in certain college cultures could fail in others. Homogeneity in the college application process is a ruse and ultimately benefits neither the school nor the student.

(1) Completing a college application should NOT be a simplified task. It should take reflection and a researched understanding of why a student wants to attend a particular school. All colleges that choose to accept the Common Application should also be required to provide a tailored supplement that extracts details about the applicant relevant to that school’s specific needs.

(2) All college applications should limit the reportable number of AP courses and extracurricular activities to two each.

(3) Colleges should encourage applicants to supplement their applications with real-life content by providing a link to their LinkedIn profile, Instagram portfolio, Facebook page, Twitter account or YouTube channel.

(4) Every college should adopt and strictly adhere to a non-prejudicial test-optional admission path for applicants.

D. Colleges must commit to assessing the authenticity of the applicant’s work and representations.

If there is a concern that the student’s essay or any other part of the application package was fabricated or paid for, steps must be taken to ascertain the truth. If there is any doubt about the authenticity of the application, that application must be summarily rejected. No second chances regardless of whether the applicant is a legacy, an athlete, or a social media influencer. It is easier than ever to discover application fraud. Technology can easily detect plagiarism.

Just about every teenager has a discoverable and information-rich digital footprint which contains critical validation points for a college admissions officer. Needless to say, an applicant whose essay reads like Ernest Hemingway shouldn’t have a Twiter feed that reads like Alfred E. Neuman. Someone who claims to be the captain of the debate team should have a digital footprint that reflects that interest. The recent college admissions scandal could have been entirely avoided had someone taken a moment to check social media to validate the fraudulent representations put forth by these students.

In conclusion, Turning the Tide II took a giant step backward. Making Caring Common should have kept the white-hot spotlight on what colleges can and should be doing to level set the college admissions paradigm. Taking the focus away from colleges and placing the responsibility for change squarely on the backs of parents and high schools is putting the cart in front of the horse.

Social AssurityComment