Elite Colleges Sound a Call to Reshape Admissions – But Will It Spur Any Concrete Changes?

Representatives of 56 top colleges and universities put their names behind an effort announced Wednesday to make the college admissions process more equitable and less stressful. It is unclear, however, whether the well-intentioned reforms proposed will trickle down to help those most often sidelined by the current process.

“We are trying to de-escalate the admissions competitions, the arms race,” said Richard Weissbourd, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, whose research provided the basis of the “Turning the Tide” report, released at a news conference in New York. “Stopping an epidemic requires collective action.”

Presidents and admissions deans from colleges such as Brown, Dartmouth, Harvard, M.I.T., Kenyon and Yale endorsed the recommendations in the report, which called for a reduction of the quantity of Advanced Placement courses and extracurricular activities considered in admissions, and advocated instead for a focus on the quality of involvement and community service. But the stress and anxiety experienced by so many affluent, high-achieving students is a world away from the experiences of many low-income students, who worry about paying for college and whether they will feel too out of place and unwelcome to succeed at high-flying colleges.

Ben Wildavsky, director of higher education studies at the Rockefeller Institute of Government at the State University of New York, noted that while the list of those who signed on to the proposal was impressive, the proposed changes wouldn’t affect the majority of students, most of whom attend public, non-selective or somewhat selective colleges.

“This is a sort of elite phenomenon,” said Wildavsky.

Related: Report proposes new definition of “merit” to help low-income college applicants

Some education experts praised the report’s recommendations as changes that could help both create a less stressful process for middle-class students and open the door for more low-income students. But they noted that the actual commitments made were thin, such as adding essay questions on how a student has improved the lives of an individual or a community.

Several admissions deans at the news conference emphasized the need to change the “messaging” of colleges to let low-income students know that they can apply, get into and afford the colleges.

Related: Gaming the numbers: Conflicting college admissions messages confound parents and kids

The report calls for less emphasis on testing, like the SAT and ACT exams, and less “over-coaching” on essays and other admissions material. But it contains no concrete commitments to change admission criteria.

“Many colleges have a required minimum ACT or SAT scores to even have your application read. Has that changed?” asked Kim Nauer, education research director at The Center for New York City Affairs at The New School, who works on college access. “You’re either using it or not using it as a gatekeeper.”

Nauer also noted that an ‘A’ in an A.P. class also counts for more than an ‘A’ in a general course, so even if students are encouraged not to “pile on” the A.P. courses, if the weighted or cumulative GPA scoring is still used, there is no incentive to cut back.

Still Nauer, Wildavsky and several other experts said the report was a good first step.

“Competing for status, prestige and rank has gotten us nowhere in this country,” said Lloyd Thacker, the president of the Education Conservancy, who endorsed the report. “It’s moved us backwards.”

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

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Meredith Kolodner

Meredith Kolodner is a staff writer. She previously covered schools for the New York Daily News and was an editor at InsideSchools.org and for The Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute. She’s also covered housing, schools, and local government for the Press of Atlantic City and The Chief-Leader newspaper and her work has appeared in the New York Times and the American Prospect. Kolodner is a graduate of Brown University and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and an active New York City public school parent.