Reenvisioning College Admissions

It's that time of year again. College applications are in. Now it's time for seniors, their parents, and counselors to sit and wait. And reflect.

Anyone close to the college admission process understands the stress and uncertainty involved. The stakes are high for kids whose dreams rest firmly in the hands of admission officials who barely know them – and who must somehow glean the essence of these young lives from a few essays, test scores, grades, and lists of extra-curricular activities. When so much rests on so little, it’s no wonder that students load up on advanced placement classes, sign up for as many activities as they can fit in the day, take and retake standardized tests, and concoct exotic community service projects, sometimes in faraway lands. College admission is highly competitive these days. And motivated kids will go to extraordinary lengths to grab the attention of their dream schools. The process is ripe for stress, burn out, and disappointment – and for low-income students, all the more daunting as the bar for what constitutes a competitive application inches up each year, so high, some students feel excluded.

Those of us waiting alongside our high school seniors were heartened to read a report published recently by the Making Caring Common project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The authors of Turning the Tide hope to shift the focus of college admissions from personal achievement alone to one that values ethical engagement, reduces academic pressure, and levels the playing field for an economically diverse population.

There is much to like in the report with benefits for all students. Here are a few highlights that specifically impact low-income youth:

  •  “The admissions process should clearly send the message…that not only community engagement and service, but also students’ family contributions, such as caring for younger siblings, taking on major household duties or working outside the home to provide needed income, are highly valued in the admission process.”
  • “Admissions offices…should work together to reduce unfair advantages…associated with admission tests (SAT and ACT).”
  • “In many communities, students lack access to key academic opportunities and resources…It’s vital that the admissions process consider this…in assessing students and not create a threshold…that some students will not be able to cross.”

Frank Bruni of the New York Times wrote of the report,“Colleges are becoming more conscious of their roles — too frequently neglected — in social mobility. They’re recognizing how many admissions measures favor students from affluent families.”

With a long list of colleges endorsing the report, it seems likely that policies will change, especially viewed as part of a larger trend which includes the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success (a new consortium of more than 90 colleges committed to making “college affordable and accessible for all students”) as well as the steady increase in test-optional colleges.

At Breakthrough Silicon Valley, we hope that these initiatives together will “turn the tide" in college admissions. We look forward to hearing more in months to come.

In the meantime, congratulations to our seniors for their hard work this fall. You make us proud every day.