CHARACTER COLLABORATIVE ANNUAL CONFERENCE PROCEEDINGS
OCTOBER 12-13, 2021
Preface: Angel Perez, CEO, NACAC
Introduction to “Proceedings”
Welcome to Day One
A. Keynote: “Culture Shock”
B. Respondent Panel to “Culture Shock”
C. Revolutionizing Character Assessment Strategy
D. Fireside Chat: “NACAC and Advancing Holistic Admission”
E. What We Learned Over the Past 18 Months
Welcome to Day Two
F. Fireside Chat: “Wellness and the Impact of COVID”
G. How Assessment Played Out in Admission Offices
H. Refining a New Selection Paradigm: Summary of Workshops
I. What Next
Preface: Angel Perez, CEO, National Association of College Admission Counseling
It is a great pleasure to present to our members and others the proceedings of the annual conference of the Character Collaborative. Since its inception in 2016, NACAC has worked with the Collaborative to position its fall meeting a day prior to the opening of our annual conference. More recently, NACAC has co-sponsored with the Collaborative a series of on-line, free courses and a soon-to-be-released podcast called Character Countson the NACAC Podcast Network.
The Character Collaborative consists of colleges, universities, secondary schools, counselors and associations that believe in the importance of addressing attributes of character in the admission process – whether ethically based, performance oriented or intellectually focused. As the practice of holistic admission becomes more prevalent with the increase in test optional institutions, an internally consistent admission rubric that includes character has become increasingly popular. Members of the Collaborative, along with NACAC members who might not yet have joined the Character Collaborative, will find these proceedings filled with important insights and good ideas. Our colleagues are to be commended for their work in this critical arena, and NACAC is honored to be a part of it.
Introduction to Proceedings
The annual conference of the Character Collaborative was held on September 12-13, 2021 in an online format over two days, with 300 participants representing colleges, schools, reform projects, research entities and national associations. The meeting sessions included a keynote address, panels, fireside chats, and workshops. Sessions were recorded, and the meeting transcripts are included in these Proceedings. The meeting focused on these topics:
- Distortions of admission and a healthy response (keynote and respondents)
- Advances in character assessment: Report of Common App and Making Caring Common (presentation)
- Advancing holistic assessment: NACAC perspective (fireside chat)
- Lessons learned over past 18 months (summary of participant survey)
- Impact of college process and COVID on student wellness (fireside chat)
- How assessment played out in admission offices in 2020-2021 (panel)
- Refining a new selection paradigm (workshop summary)
- What next? (collective conclusions)
The contributions of admission leaders across the nation are captured here. As we work collectively to better serve students, families and our nation, we believe that the Proceedings of the conference point the way to a promising future.
Welcome to Day One: David Holmes, Executive Director and Bob Massa, Board Chair
Welcome to the 6th annual conference of the Character Collaborative.
The Collaborative came into being in 2016 and, as we all know, much has happened in the world since that time. In fact, the present moment is the most disruptive for college admission in over 70 years.
We have COVID, more than 1700 test optional institutions, holistic review of candidates, and the elevation of personal characteristics, such as character, in what we seek in our candidates for admission…and in life.
These two days are aimed to capture the present…and light the way for the future. Someone once said about great educators, “They have their feet firmly planted in the clouds.” Well, that describes pretty well those of us meeting over these two days, including our keynote speaker, Jon McGee.
We are very pleased to introduce Jon. You have Jon’s bio but let me just say that Jon is a great educator, an influential author, and deeply committed to the essential role of ethical values and elements of character in how we educate …and raise our children.
Jon is visiting a partner school in Austria at the moment, so he went into the studio to record his remarks. Here, then, is Jon McGee.
A. Keynote Address: Jon McGee, Head of School, St. John’s Prep, Minnesota
Our schools are messy, diverse, joyful, beautiful, and constantly evolving places. We are works in progress. And when we stay focused on the journey to become our best future selves, we create irreplaceable, life-altering experiences for our students.
Tim Fish, Chief Innovation Officer, National Association of Independent Schools.
Thank you so much for the opportunity to speak to you today. Over a now-long career, I’ve had the opportunity to experience college admission and college preparation through three distinct lenses:
- As a professional who for more than two decades worked in higher education and studied economic and demographic trends in college enrollment and how students make their choice.
- Most recently as a head of school at a competitive college prep school educating students in grades 6-12.
- And, perhaps most importantly, as the parent of four children – who will collectively be in college continuously from 2015 to 2027.
Each experience has provided its own set of insights into the strange but important process that brings students and colleges together – the making, and sometimes the unmaking, of dreams. Through it all, I have come to believe deeply that our work as educators, whatever role we play, lives at the marvelous intersection of aspiration, preparation, and opportunity. We are in the futures business. It’s an enormous privilege. But it also comes with enormous responsibility.
I want to begin with a story.
Several years ago, at a lunch hosted by a community organization to celebrate the achievements of local students, I listened to a high school senior breathlessly (and painstakingly) recite a list of her scholastic and personal achievements and experiences. The list was long. But while she had much to be proud of, I wondered as I listened whether she viewed her list of accomplishments as anything more than just that – a kind of scorecard of her life, a series of checked boxes of tasks completed. Her enthusiastic staccato tone notwithstanding, I wondered how much she cared about any of it or how much she learned from any of it, or whether she had simply built a resume around a set of cues created by colleges, her school, her social circle, or her parents that told her she needed to accumulate experiences, grades, and accolades to access the kind of college she desired. I couldn’t tell. But it caused me to reflect on the call-and-response incentives and myths that shape the way many students think about college today. I am the head of a competitive high school that enrolls many high achieving students with high expectations and big aspirations. It’s a familiar story.
On the one hand, it’s all quite simple to explain. The perfect college application is a myth. Even the most selective schools aren’t looking for perfect students—and in any case what defines the ideal would vary by school. There is no universal standard that defines a perfect application for all students.
- Do high schools grades matter? Yes.
- Do the kinds of courses students take in high school matter? Yes.
- Do entrance exam scores matter? At many schools, yes.
- Do curricular and co-curricular experiences and commitments—academic, artistic, athletic, or volunteer—matter? Yes.
- Does any one thing or collection of things guarantee acceptance to a particular college? Typically, no.
Mostly, colleges seek to enroll interesting, hopefully genuine people. They will say (convincingly) that they prize authentic applications that reflect the talents, values, and genuine commitments of students. We enroll students as they are and who they are. But if that’s in fact true, then why is the process so deeply stressful and mysterious? Do we in fact value and reward what we say we do – or do we default to those things that are easiest to measure, count, and explain?
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way. Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Colleges today are under enormous pressure, typically expressed in the form of four difficult questions:
- Who will have access to what kind of college?
- How will they pay for it?
- Is college (or THIS college) worth it?
- What resources will colleges have to improve quality and maintain accessibility?
Those questions emanate from four different disruptive forces – forces that have always defined our choices – that impact all institutions, but in many different ways: people, price, pedagogy, and purpose. The first three, which focus on demography, economics, and the tools and practice of teaching, get a lot of attention. They most often are either easy to count and measure or simple to explain – though no less important or frightful. The intensity of the first three is weighted by the fact that enrollment is a binary proposition: I choose this school or that school, one or the other. Never both at the same time. Winner takes all. Loser loses all. Understand those dynamics or incentives and you will understand market behavior.
But I want to focus today on the fourth disruptive force: challenges to purpose. Why do we do what we do? It gets less attention, at least within education circles, both because we too often assume it (a huge mistake) and because we do not have simple ways to describe or capture it (it isn’t as subject to simple market messages or market strategy). But its importance plays throughout the admission and education process in ways that are significant.
College – and, really, education at any level – historically has satisfied two broad purposes:
- The first, instrumental empowerment, focuses on the development of the skills necessary for a successful professional life, often expressed in the form of degree completion or certification, as a means to an economic end. Its value rests in skill development and credentialing. It answers the question: what CAN I do? Call it “career craft”.
- The second, transformational development, is altogether different. It focuses on character growth and maturation, the development of habits of mind, and independence. It asserts the centrality of agency, efficacy, integrity, responsibility, morality, perhaps spirituality and answers the question: what SHOULD I do? Call it “soul craft”.
The ascendance – and now certain dominance – of the instrumental narrative of education has come at the expense of the developmental narrative. While few parents and students likely would disagree with developmental values as at least nice to have, the conversation about higher education today clearly asserts that those should take a back seat to economic values and purposes. I want to be an accountant or an engineer or a doctor or a scientist or a fill-in-the-blank. Why do I have to take courses in Philosophy or Fine Arts or Literature? What difference does it make if I live in a residence hall? Why should I get involved in campus activities? These are not atypical questions. And each is rooted in a deeply transactional understanding of value.
The problem is that these are not either/or choices – one need to have, one only nice to have. Neither can exist without the other. Successful people have strong work skills framed by a strong arc of values. Technical skills without perspective or purpose are hollow, turning us into little more than industrial machines. Similarly, purpose or values without the skills to employ them or make a difference ring hollow. Let me be clear. This isn’t about being smart or even interesting. Many people are smart, even interesting. Fewer though are good. And even fewer are wise.
The transactional, instrumental narrative of education reduces college and learning to little more than a set of linear content-and-standard hoops, reducing the value of the experience to that which can be most easily counted, like the number of degrees conferred or whether graduates got jobs – data that reveal little more than output production and provide no insights into the lasting value of education or whether our students left prepared for work and life or even happy or satisfied with their experience.
We can lament this as institutions, but we contribute to the problem because of our own inability to craft and convey compelling and understandable messages about why character development is important and HOW WE DO IT. Nor is it at all clear that we reward or even recognize it more than superficially in the admission process.
- How do we guide prospective students and enrolled students to consider the world in more than transactional terms? Why should character matter?
- What values and experiences beyond those defined as economic are important to a good life? How does my school provide or contribute to the creation of those values?
- Can we describe how the often-elegant mission and value statements we purport to believe in are actually delivered and experienced?
- How is character either captured or encouraged in the admission process?
These are difficult questions to be sure. They defy simple counting conventions. But they are knowable and answerable. And they matter if we believe that the learning experiences we provide ought to mean something more than a meal ticket. We need to do a far better job developing a compelling, understandable language for both prospective students and current students that explains WHY character matters in the admission and learning process, what our mission actually means in practice, and how we model and deliver the values we say we prize. To do anything less, or worse to do little more than poster-ize those values, sells short both our students and their potential as well as our institutions and their potential to make a true difference in the world.
My book, Dear Parents, includes letters I asked friends and colleagues from schools, colleges, and universities around the country to write talking about the educational experiences and expectations they had with their own children. Most thought the request was simple enough, until they began writing the letters – which they quickly realized required some deep personal reflection. All the letter writers described family experiences of admission visits and parenting college students. None of them described the outcome of the process in transactional terms. Two letters concluded particularly poignantly:
- “It is important for all of us as parents to keep in mind who our children are, who they are becoming, and the relationships we have with them. It’s not about admittance to a college you can brag about but rather the development of fully functioning, contributing members of society that you want to spend time with at family reunions!” Karen Cooper, Director of Financial Aid, Stanford University
- “Our job, as parents and educators, is to raise well-adjusted, confident people who can make their way successfully in the world. It took mine rejecting our plan for his postsecondary experience to realize that we’d accomplished exactly what we’d set out to do.” Kaya Henderson, CEO, Reconstruction
Parents clearly want their children to be economically and socially independent and successful. But without doubt, character counts. We want to raise GOOD people, people GENEROUS OF HEART, HAPPY people.
We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are. Anais Nin
College is a match to be made, not a prize to be won. Frank Sachs, The Blake School
So what does all of this mean for college preparation and admission? After years and decades studying and watching the admission process, including my own children, I’ve come to learn that two entirely different considerations play an outsized role in choice: the allure of features and the pervasive belief (particularly among higher achieving students) that “I am my grades and my test scores.” One is like infatuation. The other causes angst – or, worse, depression, anxiety, or other serious stress-related illnesses. Both are pervasive, even endemic, to the admission process. And both diminish sound consideration of fit and character.
Let’s start with features. We are very good at that. And we know they matter. The days of the ascetic collegiate experience are long gone. Colleges of all types today offer a remarkable range of experiences and amenities, trying hard to put their best foot forward as they present themselves to students and families. Our campuses routinely feature comfortable residential facilities, lovely, manicured grounds, state-of-the art athletic and recreational centers, highly sophisticated classroom and laboratory technology, and vast and varied experiential learning opportunities. Even college food, the last bastion of a dreary institutional stereotype, has gone upscale, as campus dining halls now routinely provide eating choices unimaginable – or simply unimagined – in days gone by. I continue to experience a sense of wonder every time I visit a college campus. We care about making a strong impression, but we also know that features – especially those that students can see, touch, or easily understand – cast a powerful glow. We want prospective students and their parents to fall in love with us, and we understand the magnetic allure of the sensory.
But alluring and impressive as they are, features have limits. My family visited a college with one of our sons and spent most of our tour viewing residence halls, dining halls, and campus greenways. The campus was exquisitely beautiful, but we learned little from our student guide about what the college actually did or what it valued. Those parts of the college experience received scant attention on the tour. My son was agog, lost in love in the sea of attractive images. I was aghast.
As each of my four children have gone through their college search processes, I have been struck by the sameness of the search mail coming to our home. Not much in those early pitch pieces has set one college apart from the other. If we were to have looked only at those mailed materials, we could have reasonably concluded that all colleges are friendly, caring learning communities dedicated to academic excellence and the development of the whole person. With great photographers and attractive students. But at the point of choosing, student needs more than a superficial understanding of why any single school represents a good match with their preparation, expectations, personal values, characteristics, and aspiration. Absent a clear understanding of self and fit, all features will look good, like shiny objects. And it is nearly impossible to meaningfully tell one shiny object from the other.
“I am my grades or test scores” is both more insidious and more dangerous because it asserts that perfection is both desirable (it yields a positive result) and attainable (I can actually do it!). Brene Brown has written extensively about the deep downside of perfectionism. She notes that “most perfectionists grew up being praised for achievement and performance. Somewhere along the way, they adopted this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect. Prove.”
Perfection is unattainable because it doesn’t exist. Moreover, it is less often about self-motivation than it is about perception – I want people to think highly of me – an elusive standard none of us can control. But it runs rampant among high achieving students and at schools that define themselves by rigor. The effects can range from catastrophic (like serious mental illness) to misplaced disappointment. Ole Jorgenson (head of school at Almaden Country Day School in San Jose) and Percy Abram (head of school at The Bush School in Seattle), recently laid out the danger in crystal clear terms:
“We [have]—astonishingly—normalized adolescent stress and its debilitating effects on our students. Whether parents want to inflict this sort of rigor on their children, many of them cast the K–12 school experience as a clash among young combatants driven by fierce competition toward an elusive outcome. In this prolonged, every-student-for-themselves siege, the prize at the end—selective college admission, ostensibly, with an accompanying network of influential contacts and the promise of a launching pad to a career—makes the stress, exhaustion, and misery of high school worthwhile.”
Grades and test scores are easy to count. They are markers of achievement. They may send signals about both preparation and effort. Schools and colleges almost universally cite them – gleefully – when talking about their students. Bumper stickers proudly proclaim, “Parent of an Honor Student.” And they clearly are rewarded in highly tangible ways when it comes to college admission: either in the form of an acceptance letter or in the form of an academic scholarship (an economic return on investment). It should hardly come as a surprise to us, then, that they have achieved object-of-desire status. Or that they have pushed to the side other considerations about achievement or values or character. But to cast them – not directly but through implication or by incentive or cue – as a primary definer of achievement or personhood is simply wrong and potentially dangerous. No college says this. But it’s not what students or families hear, read, feel, or experience.
So, where to?
What can students do?
Too many students and their parents begin the college search process wondering which school will accept them: Can I get into this college? Am I good enough for this school or kind of school? That’s the wrong place to start. Instead, it’s more productive to construct the experience from the opposite angle. What kind of college experience do I want? Which college is right for me and why? Which places represent the best fit and offer the best experience in relation to my goals and ambitions? It’s akin to flipping the question, “Am I right for this college?” to “Is this college right for me?” The approach works as well for consideration of highly selective colleges as it does for less-selective or even open-access institutions.
I encourage my students to complete four sentences as they begin their college search (and certainly before they complete their college applications or consider institutional features). Because they are deeply involved in the admission process, I also encourage parents to complete them as a way to frame a family conversation later. There are no right or wrong answers. It isn’t a test and there aren’t any grades! Rather, each sentence provides a tool for self-understanding and an opportunity for reflection. The point is to help students and families discern what matters most to them and what a good college match might look like before they get lost or overwhelmed by the process. The four sentences are quite simple – and high school students are fully up to the task of completing them:
- I am . . . What makes me tick? What kinds of activities or experiences motivate, interest, or excite me? What makes me comfortable? What makes me uncomfortable?
- I expect . . . What do I expect of my collegiate experience as a student? What do I expect my collegiate experience to provide me? What do I expect of myself in college?
- I value . . . What values do I hold most dearly (values that are nonnegotiable)? What kinds of experiences do I value?
- I need . . . What kinds of community or services or support will I need as a student? What do I need a college to do for me?
I encourage them to be honest and realistic as they complete each sentence. And to avoid the temptation to add “I want,” because wants inevitably yield wish lists. After completing the exercise, I tell them to keep these handy as they consider and apply to schools. The point is for them to reflect on what is most important tothem and about them before they evaluate features, values, and experiences at the colleges they consider.
What can colleges do?
Students bring three things to the table when they enroll in college: their preparation, their motivation, and their aspiration. Each is shaped in a variety of ways long before they ever show up on our campuses or in our classrooms. Preparation, motivation, and aspiration all are influenced by the environments in which our students live and grow up – in their families, in their schools, with their friends, and by the broader culture. Colleges can influence but never own all three. That’s an important point. On the one hand, we take students as they come to us, each one a unique bundle of values and characteristics. On the other, their values and attributes act on us, shaping and reshaping our own institutional values and practices.
Colleges and universities also bring three distinct features to the educational table: our purpose (embodied in our mission and values), our product (the constellation of courses and experiences we provide to our students), and our processes (the ways we deliver the experiences we provide). Together, those values and attributes represent what we offer to our students and pledge to society at large. Similar to the values and attributes of our students, our institutional purposes, products, and processes are drawn from our history and the changing needs and demands of the world around us. Because they typically have been shaped over many decades, we often hold them very dear – resisting the temptation to faddish change, and sometimes to any change at all.
Students do not simply receive their education, they give it form and define its outcomes. This is true at every level of schooling. A course can be magnificently constructed and brilliantly presented, but without the active engagement of the student’s motivation, preparation, and aspiration, little learning or development will occur. The bargain, of course, works in reverse, too. Bright, fully engaged students get little out of college experiences that are poorly constructed or poorly presented. In either case, no input yields no outcome. Education is an interactive process, an exchange, colleges and their students acting on each other.
The engagement of a student’s motivation, preparation, and aspiration with an institution’s purpose, product, and processes comprises the touchstone of the collegiate experience. When those values and attributes are reasonably well aligned, the educational experience yields marvelous results: engaged students who identify with the values of our institutions and take full advantage of the range of learning opportunities we provide to create powerful professional and developmental outcomes. A happy ending for everyone. When they are not well aligned, it is a different and more complicated story.
For their part, colleges can do a much better job talking about values, purpose, and experiences to move students beyond features and help them to develop a real understanding of fit – one that better matches motivation, preparation, and aspiration with purpose, product, and process. It requires moving beyond the guidebook or viewbook.
Many years ago, when I first started working at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, our library director told me that we were home to the 11th largest library collection among all liberal arts colleges in the country, a group that included more than 200 colleges. I was impressed. I spent a lot of time in the library as an undergraduate student and believe that libraries powerfully represent a school’s commitment to knowledge and learning. But on further reflection, I wondered what the raw statistic – presented as a kind of merit badge – really meant. What if, in a digital age, libraries had become little more than mausoleums for books and journals? What did our students learn as a result of having access to our extensive collection? Why does a library matter? The statistic by itself had a kind of wink-and-nod quality to it, presuming the hearer would fully understand its meaning and value. I suspect most often that didn’t happen.
I have vivid memories as a high school senior decades ago of perusing a tome-like Peterson’s Guide to Colleges and Universities, presented in impossibly small print, looking for information about various schools. A generation later, digital guidebooks continue to help students and their families learn about and parse the vast collegiate landscape in America. They often come with solution-oriented banner headlines: “Find Your Perfect College” (Unigo), “Your College Search Starts Here” (Fiske Interactive Online College Search), and “Your College Decision Headquarters” (Cappex), among many others.
College guides provide a useful resource for kicking off and defining a student’s college search. They typically cite statistics and information otherwise not easily gathered by students or families. They almost always focus on how much or how many of something, reporting total enrollment, racial and ethnic composition of students, price of attendance, student-to-faculty ratios, typical SAT or ACT scores, spending per student, retention or graduation rates, average class size, or even size of library collection. Colleges themselves provide similar information on their own websites. The data are helpfully provided in small bites. Collectively, they paint a broad-brush picture of the countable characteristics of a school.
But, while guidebooks can quickly and easily provide reams of data about a school, the information typically (though not always) is provided without much context. Students and parents often must assign their own meaning to the data, sometimes left to conclude little more than that more of some things must be better – like spending per student – while less of something else must be better – like students per faculty member. Unfortunately, data never speak well for themselves. They require interpretation.
At a panel of college students describing their experiences in the admission process to our trustees, one said wistfully that she wished she had known more about relationships among students than statistics about students – because it was the relationships, not the data, that shaped her experience. That’s a wise insight. College guides rarely provide insights into a school’s soul, purpose, experience, or value. What kinds of experiences do the college’s students have and how do they describe the value of those experiences? How do students report having changed by the end of their college experience? What kinds of value do their alumni cite for having attended the college? What learning or social experiences contributed most (or least) to their life after college? That information can be difficult and costly for colleges to gather and count (though we surveyed regularly to be able to answer each question), but it provides much more insight into what a prospective student might actually experience than is conveyed by a ratio, a test score, an enrollment statistic, or a dollar figure.
And in the end…
Simply put, fit trumps features. It addresses questions about what makes a good match. And match is a two-way street – ideally working for both the student and the college. It takes some of the pressure off of grades and casts features in a different light – beyond infatuation. There are nearly 4,000 institutions of higher education in the United States, and thousands more around the world. Students too often focus on “the one” – when in fact it is certainly true that on reflection about fit there surely are “the many.”
Excellence, ambition, and aspiration are powerful and important motivators. But none is or should be an end unto itself. We describe ourselves at Saint John’s Prep as committed to preparing our students for lives of purpose, service, and achievement. The order is important, and in fact none of those values is wholly independent of the other. Character matters. Authenticity matters. Values matter. Each of them makes us who we are. And the degree to which we can make them a focus of our learning experience and our admission experience will make all the difference in the world, both to our students and to the missions we prize so deeply.
B. Responses to Keynote
Moderator: Arlene Cash, Interim Vice President for Enrollment Management, San Francisco Art Institute
Thank you so much. I want to thank Jon for that excellent presentation kicking off this year’s conference and even more, I want to appreciate and recognize our guest panelists, who are here to provide their responses to Jon’s thoughts and recommendations. The panelists extensive bios are impressive and they are available at the end of the proceedings. I’d like to hand it over to Charlie Cahn for his words. Thank you for getting us started, Charlie.
Charlie Cahn, Head of School at Suffield Academy in Connecticut: Thanks, Arlene. I’d start by noting we certainly like the theme that colleges are focused on both career craft and transformational development and that schools should better articulate what their mission means in practice and how we model and deliver our missions. I also certainly agree that students should ask self-reflective questions and find schools that match. Jon rightly suggests students look at features and values and experiences of the colleges they consider. My thoughts as the secondary school head are twofold. First, we’ve certainly seen how the pandemic has complicated all of this from visits to some goals and comfort levels of our families.
Secondly, we certainly feel self-reflective questions are crucial, but we try to facilitate the process in what we call personal inventories and questions like what are my strengths, not just academically, but personally and what are my weaknesses and how do I compensate for them? What accomplishments have given me the most pride and what anxieties concerns or pressures about the college search and destination would I like my college counselor to be aware of?
In sum, I’d agree, we always are focused on our students and helping them and their families focus on fit without constantly harping on the topic. Now, we’re being particularly sensitive at this moment to the challenges of doing this during the complicated past 18 months we’ve experienced and the impact that’s had on our students and parents.
Cash: Thank you so much, Charlie. Jonathan?
Jonathan Burdick, Vice Provost for Enrollment at Cornell University: I greatly appreciate having the opportunity to see everybody here as part of the Character Collaborative, which I’ve enjoyed since my time at Rochester and trying to put to work here at Cornell as well. Just a few responses to Jon’s comments, which, of course, open up the field admirably to all the things that are issues for us. One of the questions he posted: do we default to those things that we are easiest to measure, count, and explain?
I think the answer there has always been, throughout my entire career, an emphatic yes, but then, if we want to change that, the response goes in two different directions. One is, do we resource what we do in things that are difficult to account for and explain, or do we come up with better ways to measure and explain what it is that we’re looking at? I lean towards the latter camp and I think there are technology tools and options ahead of us to do that.
To elaborate on that at Cornell, we admitted only 8½% of the students who applied last year. It included 10 or 11% of those who had the highest possible test scores. When we talk about replacing something, we have an obligation to help students understand what they have to do to be well prepared. This isn’t a new problem. Victorians had to think about what was right action that demonstrated right ability in all aspects of life. This idea of merit isn’t brand new. It has always been a challenging problem. I just think we have to embrace it in a different way than we have for the last 60, 75 years, and I’ll come back to that.
A few expansions on what I think Jon said: he described that we want students who are good people, generous in part and happy. I would add to that students who are responsible and justice-minded and freedom-loving. There are an inherent rocky set of responsibilities to impart along with the joys and the expansive compassion that we want students to have. There are some things that students can do along the lines of what Jon proposed, but I’d expand them a little bit.
One is, we’re not entirely going to get rid of this idea that students want to go where they think they’re best served. If they gravitate towards high profile kinds of places, which is a natural, normal human instinct, then we would do well to do whatever we want to do with this understanding that. We would love it if students just focused on fit or match or something broader-minded in their connection, but that’s not the way the world has worked even though we’ve been talking about this point for many decades.
I would invite students to ask a few questions. Jon’s questions I thought were terrific. A couple of them, I think for 16 and 17 year olds, are very complicated. Understanding their expectations of places they’ve never been; understanding their values. I don’t know that those of us in our ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s are really good and clear at defining exactly what our values are. They might be situational, they might evolve. I would expand on the two things that Jon mentioned I think are more accessible to students.
What am I enjoying and good at, which are two different branches that coalesce, but are not exactly the same. Do I need both to make money? Let’s get real. 96% of students say they go to college to enhance their professional opportunities. Then, what are we doing to help make change? Because this generation of students particularly should be making change in the world. If we invite students ask those questions in the same way that Jon described, we will be leading them in the path that might get them to the best college that they most want.
Then, the colleges have a responsibility and Jon defined a lot of these, but basically, it comes down to, we need to have a mission that is unique and specific and measurable and then we need to be accountable for how we live that mission. Then we need to help students understand exactly what they can do that helps pull them along the lines of how we define ourselves. I think there’s some elements there. Jon mentioned our purpose, our product, and our processes. I like the alliteration, but I would add to that, what does the culture and ethos represent and what are our standards of care?
Students and parents are expecting, particularly in United States, not just a process, but an educational community. That has value whether it’s a Zoom community or an in-person community. I think we have to define what the culture, ethos and values of that community are. Here’s my last point of good news. The disruptions we’ve experienced with the past 18 months included 1800 colleges moving away from testing. That’s a wholesale overnight upside-down kind of change.
It’s more permanent than it appears because it’s endemic now throughout California and as California goes, so goes the nation. What an opportunity we have to fill what is now a gap in what we expected of students: submitting test scores as a part of their application. What an opportunity to fill it up with better, more measurable things that we actually care about more. I think we should seize this moment and not let it go past us by slipping back into the old ways. Thank you.
Cash: Thank you. Sharon.
Sharon Alston, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Enrollment at American University: Good afternoon, everyone. I would start by saying that I think that Jon has presented a really great case to support soul craft as well as career craft in higher education. He correctly points out that it’s not an either/or, it’s an and, but having said that, I will have to acknowledge that there is an over-emphasis on the part of many of us on the more transactional aspects of education. While we all acknowledge that there’s a higher purpose in education and the importance of character development, just check out our mission statements.
We all have one. It does seem that we’re stuck in a mode of really just paying lip service to our values and emphasizing the career craft over the soul craft. The question is, how is it that we find ourselves in this place? Because we do believe in our missions and our values are important to us. We want to graduate students who are good and contributing members of society. As I reflect on this, my thoughts actually turn to the cost of college and how it impacts our messaging.
For the most recent year for which data are available and I believe that might have been 2018, the average cost of attendance at a private four-year institution is about $45,000 a year. That was reported out by the National Center of Education Statistics. Now, we know that there are many institutions, my own included, with an average cost of attendance that far exceeds that. In fact, I’ve seen at least one institution with a reported cost of attendance that exceeds $80,000. Now, if you multiply those costs over a four-year period and consider that students are taking up to six years to complete a four-year degree, you’re looking at an expenditure that is well above a quarter of a million dollars. I think that parents are making a significant investment and as is the case with any investment that we make, they’re concerned with the return on their investment. I wonder if this isn’t what pushes us to err on the side of emphasizing career craft and data over soul craft, pushing out messages and information that are more on the measurable side and highlighting the sensory as Jon pointed out.
Is there a way that we can modify our messaging and our other practices to demonstrate the value that we do place on soul craft and the transformational aspects of a college experience? Going back to Jon’s reference to purpose, product, and process, what are the programs and processes that we offer that connect to our purpose, both academic, as well as non-academic? How, in our communication, do we emphasize the connection between relationships and the outcomes?
We all care about those graduation outcomes but what were the processes and the relationships that led to that? When we speak or when we identify, for example, student speakers, are we choosing students who are truly relatable and who can attest to the value add or the connections and the transformational aspects of their collegiate experience, or are we selecting the trophy students that many families might perceive as the exception versus the norm? I would suggest that it’s not really just about what we say.
Families are paying attention to what we do. As we focus on the proof points that document what Jon refers to as career craft, I think we really need to be more intentional about those proof points that demonstrate our commitment to our soul craft.
Cash: Thank you so much, Sharon. Marc?
Marc Wais: Senior Vice president for Student Affairs Emeritus at New York University: Thanks, Arlene. Good afternoon, everyone. I’m coming to you today as the former chief student affairs officer NYU, there just over 18 years and also a parent of a recent grad from both NYU and Stanford. With that being said, I’m an admissions outsider and I think it’s interesting that I found Jon’s speech to raise an issue that in my view, my admissions colleagues from various schools that I know have been wrestling with for some time. Similar to folks in student affairs, parents and faculty, and presidents always expect us to resolve the issue of student alcohol and drug use.
If we haven’t figured out yet, it seems like this seems to be a fairly constant issue in the admissions arena. As a student affairs professional, it’s just been interesting to notice how students have changed dramatically radically in the past three to five years, especially at our selective schools of higher ed.
This has been heightened obviously with the onset of COVID but today, we see many examples of what college students present or bring to the table that they didn’t three, five years ago: demographics at the elite privates are incredibly diverse, much more diverse than we were a year and a half ago; partly due to COVID, not as many people have to take the SATs; a lot more privates now are enrolling a lot more Pell Grant recipients going from single digits to double digits; Gen Z students, everyone born after 2000, have a completely different persona from the millennials — they were born with a smartphone in their hands.
Diversity happens to be the norm for Gen Z. They’re incredibly practical and they’re focused on money. They are concerned incredibly with debt. They want a return on their investment like their parents. Thank God, they’re optimistic, they’re entrepreneurial but two other characteristics of Gen Z students that I think directly impact admissions folks are the concepts of accountability and transparency. Gen Z students expect us to deliver on what we say. If we say something, we better mean it. You see that as it plays out in their passion for social justice concerns, which is a norm for a lot more of our students now than even five years ago.
It’s very much tied into student activism. You see it with the issues of race from Black Lives Matter, gender, sexual harassment, assault, the MeToo movement, free speech, and the whole controversy going on in DC, the chaos between conservatives and progressives. Students are much more active now. If, in fact, you don’t speak the truth, they will speak truth to power. There are two other things I want to talk about quickly. One is financial stress. It’s just been heartbreaking for me at both Stanford and at NYU, when students can’t afford to continue to go to school.
I can’t tell you how many students approach me in their first, second semester at NYU and they don’t know how they’re going to pay for the next year yet, not to mention the following years. Their circumstances are just heartbreaking. It’s the dream school. A lot of them are at their dream school, your school, and they can’t literally afford to go there. It’s created like a cottage industry, if you will, in issues such as food insecurity and housing insecurity. At NYU, we dedicate almost a million dollars a year for food insecurity.
It ties into the theory that there’s a cost of attendance that is, from a student viewpoint, an expectation, a right. In fact, it’s interesting in that students want us to provide discounts or free transportation in NY subways. I’m expecting them to ask us for toothpaste, going forward. The financial stress is really a compelling issue.
Second is the mental health crisis, which I think is really a tsunami. When you think about student stress, anxiety, depression, suicide, they’re all at all-time record highs.
Suicide is now the third leading cause of death among 15 to 25-year-old adults. In fact, the National College Health Assessment found that more than half of our students reported being overwhelmed by feelings of sadness or anxiety. This is a national statistic, not just for NYU, and over 10% had contemplated attempting suicide within the past 12 months when they took the survey. I just think it’s important to keep these characteristics in mind when you’re thinking about recruiting students to your college.
Within this context, I very much applaud Jon’s call for the admissions process to treat students more holistically as an applicant, where things like character, values, work ethic, growth, and maturity matters more than they do now at many institutions. What’s interesting to note for me is that once students are accepted and enroll, colleges just seem to all of a sudden pay a lot more attention to students holistically. I certainly have noticed this in my work in student affairs and looking at the exploding areas of student success, our staff really care about how students are fitting in and how they’re doing academically, socially, and personally.
Schools are now much more likely to keep track of their students and intervene when appropriate to help them in real-time using technology and various offices on campus, including a college dean, a house dean, student affairs, student success, student engagement in an office of multicultural student affairs among many. It begs the question, if we pay this sort of attention once a student enrolls at our school, why aren’t we paying them the same amount of attention at the application level?
I leave that for you as the experts and practitioners to figure out. Given what I know about students and their families when they’re applying to colleges and through my own experience, I can tell you, I think they’re looking for two things in the admissions process that they think they’re not getting enough of. The first is authenticity and the second is transparency in the process.
My suggestions are to be as direct, clear, explicit, concrete, and honest as to what you offer in and out of the classroom, give both the data and also tell stories of what your students do while they’re in your school and what the graduates are doing both in the short term, when they graduate from your school and in the long-term.
The second is consistency. Be direct, clear, explicit, and concrete, and honest as to what you’re looking for in your students. If raw intellectual horsepower is the singular driver measured by GPA high school coursework and test scores, then say so. If you’re looking for diversity in all of its forms from socio-economic, to geographical, to race, to academic discipline and passion, then say so. If you’re looking for students who have had to overcome hardships and obstacles, say so. If you’re looking for students who are activists, entrepreneurial in nature, and want to change the world, say so. If you’re looking for a B-flat clarinet player for the orchestra and that would be me, or a student with a special talent or skill, say so.
Again, remember that transparency and authenticity are drivers for Gen-Z and many of their parents. I believe that being true to yourself and what your school offers and what you’re looking for, during the admissions process, by being authentic and transparent, will increase the likelihood of a good fit between your school and more of your students. This, in turn, I believe, will produce more happier and productive, and satisfied students and alums. Jon was right after all, fit does trump futures. Thanks.
Cash: Thank you, Marc. Thanks to everyone. I just want to close by saying that the ruler by which we measure so much that promotes the traditional college admission preparation, and process, will look different once the waves of this cultural shock settle. To make it happen, we are hearing that we must be intentional and we must establish proximity to the values we really want to matter. These are not changes that can happen on paper, away from the core values of our campuses or the structures that drive students to succeed before they begin the college search process.
We must change the source of their preparation, their motivation, and their aspirations. That begins in their homes, in their communities, yes, in their schools, but most importantly, in their hearts. Thanks again to all of our panelists and to Jon, for that great presentation. We do have a question, the question/answer, I’d like to visit out loud and maybe ask Sharon if she wouldn’t mind responding. The question is this, the Department of Education has not permitted additional assistance for items within the cost of attendance such as food? How can a school that meets full need provide additional funding or resources for food and meals?
Alston: Thank you, Arlene, and thank you, panelists. Like my colleague at Cornell, we do need full demonstrated need. There are a couple of ways in which we’ve addressed this. First of all, and I’m thinking about enrichment experiences, the university has a special fund that supports students through enrichment experiences. We have found that when we last looked at this, that to have the full AU experience, you’re looking at $5,000, over and above the overall cost of attendance at the university and so our financial aid office has a special fund that we use and we provide students with the means to take advantage of those enrichment opportunities.
As Marc has indicated, we also have food pantries and other kinds of services on campus in order to address food insecurity. We have purchased clothing to assist students who need to up their wardrobes for internship, interviews, or job interviews. We find ways to provide additional funds to students without necessarily putting the funds in the hands of the students but we’re making sure that they’re supported.
Cash: Does anyone else want to respond, Jon?
Burdick: I would just add that we have to come up with standardized and pretty facile definitions of what’s needed, who is expected to contribute what, and what they’re supposed to spend it on, but that belies the complicated reality underneath students choices and what they actually access and want to access from their parents. This will always be a thing, even if you’re meeting needs, even if you’re meeting beyond need in the ways that Sharon described. You’re still going to have students not necessarily empowered correctly to make the right choices.
I think financial aid offices will be evolving to have a greater and deeper understanding of what their responsibilities are. They’re not just administering aid programs, they’re helping students in a transition state from their homes to their adult lives and they’re taking greater and increasing responsibility for how they do that. I think it’s going to prove pretty important.
Cash: Thank you very much. I’m going to, again, thank you all for your reflection and your thought about Jon’s presentation. Thank you for your great words and your inspiration.
C. Revolutionizing Character Assessment Strategy: Common App/Making Caring Common Project
Rick Weissbourd, Senior Lecturer, Harvard Graduate School of Education & Director, Making Caring Common: Well, welcome, everybody. It is been rare in my professional life that I’ve come across a major institution in this case, the Common App, that really wants to put equity, front, and center and is serious about it, and I think is going to be doing, over the next year or two or longer, some very serious rethinking of the primary mechanisms by which they assess both cognitive and non-cognitive skills with a real focus on equity and justice. I very much appreciate that and have been delighted to be part of this work and these are terrific people to work with, who are open to real change.
We are going to be focusing today primarily on one domain or one aspect of this work, which is the assessment of character. We’ve been looking forward to this for a long time because we really are wanting feedback on some preliminary ideas that we have.
Here are goals for our time together. We want to share some information about the Common App’s effort to use its platform and to revolutionize the college application. We’re going to be hearing from Sadie Harlan about that effort in a minute. We’re also going to provide a deep dive into one component of revolutionizing the app, which is exploring better ways to assess character.
We want to spend most of our time hearing from all of you about our character assessment ideas that show initial promise. Trisha, my colleague, Trisha Ross Anderson is going to be sharing some of the ideas that we have been discussing and that came out of a group that convened. We really want to get your temperature, your feedback, candid about these ideas.
Here’s our agenda. Five minutes on revolutionizing the App, I’m going to be talking five minutes about what character is and why we’re using this term. We’re going to spend about 5 to 10 minutes talking about the character assessment ideas themselves. Then we’re going to leave 20 minutes for your feedback, discussion, and brainstorming. I am going to turn this over to Sadie.
Sadie Harlan, Project Director, Reach Higher, Common App: At Common App, I sit on our access and equity team, and my job is to try to use Common App’s platform and our reach to increase the pipeline of underserved students into our member institutions. The big project I’m leading right now is called Revolutionizing the App, which I’ll share some information about. Then we’ll focus, for the bulk of this presentation, on one aspect of Revolutionizing the App, which is taking a closer look at how we collect inputs related to character in college admissions.
Essentially, at its core, Revolutionizing the App is our effort as Common App to transform college admissions by creating our next-generation application to be much more equity-focused and to place more agency in the hands of students. This is a lofty goal. I’m going to chat a little bit about how we’re working to get there now before we jump more into why we’re all here, which is to discuss character.
As you might assume, this is not something that’s going to happen overnight. We have been spending the better part of this year in the discovery phase, which is where we still are and will be until the end of the calendar year, really working with experts in the field as well as the biggest experts themselves, students, about how Common App can make some investments in our next generation application to create an experience that’s more inclusive, more equitable for students.
There are two parallel efforts to how we’re approaching this big question of what are the new features? What are the big changes that Common App should make to create a more equitable experience for students who are pursuing post-secondary education? One bucket is called student experience, and this is essentially trying to dig into what the biggest roadblocks and unmet needs are that students face in their pursuit of admissions to a four-year degree.
We are currently in the middle of some research with students across the board — students who are in their senior year of high school applying to a four-year, students who are adults who have transferred from a two-year to a four-year across a variety of backgrounds, first-gen students, underrepresented minority students, students who are in rural settings, students who have learning disabilities — to really understand what their process was like and how Common App could play a role in making that a much smoother process for them to get to an institution that’s going to serve their needs.
Then on the other side of this process, which is what we’ll spend more time talking about today, is what we call equity-based assessment, but is essentially our attempt to really question how Common App collects all the different inputs we currently collect in the college application and ask how we can do a better job collecting the information that our member institutions need, but in a way that reduces the burden on students and counselors, gives students more agency and levels the playing field.
We’ve broken the next bucket out into three convenings. We had a convening that was focused entirely on recommendations. Then we had a convening that was focused on character and on cognitive assessment. Rick’s going to chat a little bit more about what we really mean when we say that. Then we just wrapped up a convening focused on the cognitive inputs that Common App collects. In case it wasn’t clear, we’re going to be focusing in on character assessment specifically. I will turn it over to Rick, who’s going to talk to you all about character.
Weissbourd: Thank you, Sadie. I’m delighted that we are all called the Character Collaborative. I think character is a problematic term in my mind, but it’s probably the best term we have. People call this domain character, or SEL (social and emotional learning), or moral capacities, or non-cognitive skills. I am concerned about non-cognitive skills because I don’t think character is just a matter of skills. I think it’s a matter of identity and values, what we believe in and why, what we’re motivated to do, and why. All those things are very important to motivate and to capture in the college admissions process.
For college admissions, I roughly think there are four domains of character that are very important, and we’re focused on each of those four domains. When we’re talking about changes in recommendations or essays or reporting of extracurricular activities, we’re thinking about each of these domains. Two are domains of academic character. One is performance character. Things like grit, perseverance, self-regulation, diligence are all aspects of performance character. Second domain of academic character is intellectual character, and that’s curiosity, intellectual engagement, intellectual passion, passion for ideas.
Both are important to assess in the college admissions process. Both of these, I think, we assess through grades, we assess them through recommendations. To some extent, we assess them through essays and other means. I worry that in the character world, academic character and ethical character get conflated. I work in many schools where people talk about character, they’re really talking about academic character. They’re talking about performance character and intellectual character. We’re talking about something like grit.
Grit, no matter what you think of it, it is amoral. You can be gritty for moral purposes or gritty for immoral purposes. It has nothing to do with ethical character. Whenever we are talking about character, I think we also always have to be talking, not just about academic character, but about ethical character. Ethical character’s my field, and not just because it’s my field, it’s the most important thing that we can focus on. If you look at why we are in such trouble as a society today, it is in part because we have demoted ethical character in our schools and in our homes, and in our culture. This is the subject of a lot of our work.
There are two domains of ethical character that are critically important and critically important for college admissions. One is interpersonal ethical character. Are you caring, fair, honest? Do you act with integrity in your day-to-day relationships with people? Do you care about people who are different from you, not just people who are the same as you, different in gender, race, class, ethnicity?
The other is civic character, which is, do you have moral ideals? How you engage with the world. Do you care about a better and more just community, a better and more just world? Are you engaged citizen? All these things where you contribute to the college community, all these things are important as well. Typically, these are assessed through recommendations essays. Service is another way these things are assessed. We are making the case that all of these domains should have equal weight in the Common App and that many application systems now, they don’t have equal weight. They are skewed toward academic character. In college admissions, I think people aren’t just concerned about these domains of character. They’re also asking questions about interests and values and temperament. Is this person someone who will thrive at my particular school? Is this person a good match with my school aspects of interpersonal and civic character, but also aspects of personality?
I think admissions officers are also asking, does this person’s character pose risks? Is this somebody who is psychologically vulnerable? Are there any concerns about harm to themselves or other about transcriptions dishonesty, plagiarism? These aspects of character or these concerns about character are part of the college admissions process to things that are very much on our mind when we’re thinking about changes in assessments and the Common App as well.
Here are some ways that we think that the Common App can better support character. The sharing of character information. The first is we are strongly focused on eliminating inequities and biases, and how these domains of character are assessed. That there are profound inequities in the recommendation system now, the essay system, and the reporting of extra co-curricular activities and access to extracurricular activities. All these things are things that we are trying to correct. We are trying to reduce these inequities. We will never be perfect about this but we are trying, that is the direction we are trying to go.
We think that it’s important to provide valid, meaningful, and richer information about each of these domains of character, as Trisha can describe, without adding undue burdens to counselors, teachers, recommenders and students themselves. How can we provide more valid, meaningful and richer information? How can we provide information that will help colleges better determine if a person will thrive at their institution? How do we provide more relevant information about persons context?
Many of you know about the Landscape analysis/Landscape index that the College Board has. We’re trying to do this at individual level. We’re trying to capture that if a student has work responsibilities, is taking care of a younger sibling, supervising a younger sibling, taking care of a sick relative, and getting B’s and C’s, that’s very impressive. We were asking the question, how do we capture that individual context, not the community level context, but how do we capture the individual level of context in ways that will assure that that student will get a fair lead that will level the playing field and the application process for that student?
Let’s review some important considerations, then I’m going to hand it off to Trisha who is going to talk about the ideas themselves. Character attributes are valued, understood, and expressed differently across race, class, and culture. The way people express respect, for example, differs enormously across race, class, and culture. Systems like application processes need to be able to pick up those differences and put those differences in context. The Common App sends strong signals about what’s important and related to character.
I want to just pause on this one for a minute because — you can correct me– over 2 million people sign up every year for the Common App. If the Common App has essay questions or recommendations related to caring about a more just world and caring about people who are different from you, that sends a strong signal throughout the high school system. A lot of the power here of the Common App is in the messages that it sends to huge numbers of recommenders, teachers and high school students.
I think you all know this but all character assessments are highly imperfect. They’re all terrible in a sense because human beings are so complex and assessments do such a poor job, all of them, of capturing the complexities of human beings. Our goal isn’t to be perfect. Our goal is to be better than the current assessments that we have. That’s also an important one, first of all, to keep in mind. For all of these things that we’re going to be putting through a pilot phase of testing and research, not enough is known. Many college admissions officers, as you know, cannot spend a large amount of time reading applications, so we’re very mindful about that.
That the big state colleges will have 80,000 applications, there are often legions of admissions officers who are rifling through applications and spending about 10 minutes per application. For those schools, how can we provide information that’s really accessible to people who only have 10 minutes? Let me just finally say that we’re all really concerned about how college admissions officers will interpret and weight this information.
I know all of you are concerned with the ways in which college admissions officers think about and interpret this information, but the Common App mainly can control the input, the information that colleges receive, and that’s no small thing. We’re making the case that it’s a big thing; that if we can control the inputs, you can have a big influence on the outcomes. I’m going to turn over to Trisha.
Trisha Ross Anderson, Director, College Admission Program, Making Caring Common: Thank you, Rick. I’ve had the pleasure to work with Don and Sadie at Common App over the last, I guess, six or seven months now. It’s been a really exciting process as we’ve thought together about how to bring a group of experts together and to review a set of ideas with them. I’m going to talk about that right now.
We started this back in April, when we gathered 24 different experts, and these were experts from all over the country. We had psychometricians, we had college admission leaders, we had school counselors, we had folks that are experts in social/emotional learning, and character. We brought them all together to talk about a set of ideas and to generate ideas related to character assessment. We did individual interviews following this meeting with every single one of them, with all members of our team and them. And then we had a second group meeting where we shared all of the ideas that came out of those individual interviews.
We then had a set of working groups where we pulled the ideas that were most successful in our expert panels. We really dug into them more. Would this work? How would it work? Now we are here today sharing with you a subset of the ideas that the working group thought through over, over many, many working sessions. As Sadie pointed out, this is really the beginning of the process. Anything we develop and everything we come up with needs to be further piloted and we are very, very much looking for your feedback.
We spent a lot of time in our meeting group with experts thinking through how we are going to evaluate ideas. This is what we came up with. Does it advance equity? Does it de-center whiteness, level the playing field, capture strengths across race, culture, and class? Does it reduce bias? Does it reduce burden on students and counselors? We don’t want to add one more thing to already very busy place. Does it provide valid and detailed information on one or more of the four domains of character as Rick pointed out?
Does it provide valid and detailed information to institutions and determine if a student is likely to thrive at their college and complete their degree? Does it send signals that constructively motivate high school students? Is it a growth opportunity for students? Is it something they could actually build from and learn from so it’s not just for admissions, it is a life growth opportunity? We have come a long way in these conversations, again, started back in April.
We had 24 ideas come out of our interviews and first group sessions. Of those 24 ideas, we brought 12 of them into our working groups where we dug in deeper and we have four ideas that we’re going to talk with you about right now. It is worth mentioning that we have more than four ideas available. In fact, we snuck in some extras during this presentation. It’s just really limits of time, we can’t talk about them all today. As Rick pointed out, there are a lot of things that we have thought about.
There’s a lot of challenges in doing every single one of these ideas. Lots of considerations, as Rick said, none of these ideas are perfect, nor will they be perfect. We are simply striving to just do something better than what we have currently. The other caveat I should mention before I jump into the ideas is that these ideas are not ready for prime time. Again, we’re going to do lots of piloting, want to collect a lot of feedback so please do not run off and tell anybody that this is what Common App is doing next because it’s just not accurate yet.
Let’s jump into these ideas. Idea number one: moving beyond the essay. What if students could choose how they share information about themselves, a short video, audio sample, or written response? What if written responses could be a series of short answer questions or a polished essay? This idea is so simple. What if we’re going to replace traditional essay and give kids choices? They can speak to their own strengths and choose their own strengths and respond accordingly. You could imagine that whatever you choose to do, whether it’s video, audio, essay, or whatever, the questions could focus on the four domains of character. You could ask, for instance, what have you given back to your community, which would speak something specific, in this case, ethical character or something much more broad, like how would you describe your greatest strengths, which can speak to a variety of character skills and strengths.
Now, some caveats here, and some concerns that we’ve thought through quite a bit. For students who choose to not do the writing, we would imagine that an additional writing sample would be required such as a graded piece of work from high school, just because many colleges want students to be able to show their writing ability. We also know, and are concerned about, equalizing opportunities for all students.
We know that some students will hire the most expensive, wonderful videographers in the land. We have to think of ways to standardize this so that all students are given equal opportunities. Maybe it’s a generic white screen behind everyone and got a series of parameters that we follow for instance. That was idea number one.
Idea two: Research-Based Self-Assessments. There are two different ideas that we’re thinking through here. One of these is called Situational Judgement Tests. If you’ve never heard of Situational Judgement Tests, it’s basically where you give students a scenario and you ask them to choose a response, A, B, C, or D for instance. The scenario could really be anything that we want it to be that we decide makes sense based on what we want to learn about students. It could be something for instance, where you say, “You noticed a peer cheating on a test. What do you do?”
“Do you confront the peer after class? Do you do nothing and just continue with your own tests? Do you approach the teacher? Do you–? Et cetera.” The idea is to ask a series of new situational questions and see how students would respond hypothetically. Option B, another research-based self-assessment is forced-choice questions. These are questions where you’ll ask students a series of questions in short succession, so one after another. You might ask, for instance, “What sounds more like you? — I am hardworking or I am honest. I am honest or I am creative.” There’s no right answer here.
It’s not that one answer is any better than the other, but after doing a series of these over and over and over again, you’ll learn about the student and see where their priorities and values, and skills lie. Now, both of these methods provide a snapshot about students’ character, skills, and values just in that moment. They’re fairly resistant to gaming because there really isn’t a right answer here. Is it better that I’m more honest or that I’m hardworking? I don’t know. I think colleges also will not know when students won’t know.
Both of these methods have been used in employment settings and in graduate admissions in other countries. They’re also used in Enrollment Management Association’s Character Skills Snapshot which I know that many of you are familiar with. They would need further piloting for use in college admissions. Some concerns or caveats we have about this one is how we’ll cull and interpret this information. Essentially, if nothing is good or nothing is bad, colleges are going to need additional guidance or training when it comes to interpretation.
Idea three: Tools to Understand Context. What if we had an effective way to inventory individual student external assets and challenges? What if we could convey to students that overcoming challenges is highly valued? This is back to Rick’s point about signaling. As you all know, we already have Landscape from the College Board, which looks at community and school level context but tends to ignore individual-level challenges. What if we could ask questions that would tell us more about the student, for instance, who goes to an affluent school in an affluent neighborhood, but has to take three buses or has limited healthcare or limited access to food?
We have three rough concepts of how we could do this. These ideas were discussed in detail in one of our working groups that really focused on context around the idea of a context inventory. First, what if we had a series of simple yes or no questions? “Do you have access to reliable healthcare? Do you have access to food regularly?” You could imagine a very simple checklist where students are answering yes or no questions that would get at some of their additional life challenges. It would be easy way for colleges to gather this information.
The second concept that we had is the creation of a Time Diary. What if students had to essentially log all of their hours — how they are spending their time on a daily and weekly basis? We could get a sense of how students are choosing to spend their time, what their priorities are, but also as Rick mentioned, who is spending the time taking care of a younger sibling after school. That would all be revealed in their time diary. That’s something that is typically underreported when students are completing a college application. It exposes these additional aspects of young people’s lives.
The third concept is narrative prompts. What if we just ask kids directly these questions about what their life is like and what they’ve encountered and how they’ve overcome it? There’s lots of different ways you could do that and lots of different language we could use to do that. There are some caveats here and some concerns. First of all, my big one is, will students want to share this? This is incredibly personal data and it’ll be used in making admission decisions.
I think something like this would only work if students believed that colleges truly would support and admit students that have lots of life challenges and have overcome adversity. We think one way this could be possible is if this were framed as a positive — you have overcome lots of adversity and you have shown grit, resilience, and resistance and that is what we value here. We are committed to supporting students like you at our institution.
Idea number four is the final one and then we get to hear from all of you. Multiple respondents would do rankings that are forced choice. What if applicants and multiple recommendation writers had to comment on an applicant in the same way in the same format? What if we had data for multiple sources that we could compare? You can imagine here that applicants in their application would answer some questions about themselves. The same questions would then be asked of recommendation writers, teachers, and counselors.
For instance, you could imagine a question where students are given 10 skills or traits — grit, compassion, creativity — you pick your 10 whatever they are, and students have to identify the three that are “most like me and why,” and give a one or two-sentence summary of why they picked honesty and compassion for example. Teachers and counselors are doing the same for the applicant. The cool thing about this is that we’ve asked the same question. We can actually see how applicants’ responses and the responses of counselors and teachers compare. We can look for convergence.
Where do the answers given by students and others overlap and where do they not overlap? This is not intended to be a lie detector test. It’s really more to give us a complex picture of complex people and to better understand all the complexities of the applicants in your pool. With that, I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on these ideas. I’m going to turn it back over to Rick who’s going to start us off with some discussion.
Weissbourd: Thank you, Sadie. Thank you, Trisha. Here’s what we’d like to do. I’m actually going to complicate things just a little bit more about the recommendations. One of the other things that we’ve been talking about is enabling students to widen the circle of people who are recommenders, so they could get recommendations from peers and from employers.
Just as we are talking about giving modes of presentation for students in the application essays, e’ve also been talking about giving recommenders different modes of presenting or doing the recommendation. The recommenders could also do audio or video.
Those were just two other thoughts or amendments that I wanted to throw into the mix here. Here’s what we’d love to do. We’d love for you to think about which of these ideas — you can name one or two — do you find most promising or interesting?
Which are the one or two that you think you’d really like us to squash? Like, “This is really not a good idea”, and you have worries about it. We also are very open to suggestions like, “I like this idea under this condition or with this caveat.” That’s also very helpful to us at this point, or, “I hate this idea, but if he did this, I wouldn’t hate it so much or it’d be more acceptable to me”.
What we’re hoping you can do is share your thoughts about which of these ideas you like the most, which you’d like to leave.
Question: “All of these measures seem like an excellent way for the colleges to get more information about the student and whether they will be a good fit for their institution, but how do we ensure that students also have information about the schools that allow them to similarly differentiate and determine fit?”
“For example, if a student knows that they are ambitious but not overly competitive, how would they reasonably know which college has an academic atmosphere that fits their profile? To Jon McGee’s point, many schools present themselves similarly to students, so this can be very challenging work”.
Weissbourd: I haven’t thought about this but, Sadie, do you want to talk about this from the communist’s perspective? I know you do work in this area.
Harlan: Yes, I’d love to. Thank you so much for the question. This convening and the ideas that we’re thinking about are primarily from the student’s point of view. How can we allow students to provide richer, more valid information on their character in a way that doesn’t create burden for them? The issue you raised is certainly super valid and something that we’re also thinking about at Common App.
I think to this person’s point, it becomes very easy for schools to present themselves in similar ways to students, and then it becomes just a question of prestige, rather than what school is really going to support a student be in an environment where they can thrive. We’re thinking, within our own organization, about a better way to demonstrate that to students, visualize what students want to see, as opposed to just rewarding things that students don’t care about, like average SAT scores, spend per student, things like that, and so more to come there.
I do you want to acknowledge that you’re absolutely right. It’s not just the information that the student is providing to the school, but also how can we help students find a good match for them, whether that’s academic match, financial match, or a match where they’re going to be supported while they’re there?
Weissbourd: I would only add that I think there are a number of us that were doing a project with Google around this and a number of people at the Common App were also thinking about this issue. This is a place where better data would be very helpful, too. It would be good to know that, when students make choices based on their characteristics and the characteristics of the college, did they end up being satisfied at that school, and were they academically engaged at that school? If we could collect better and better data about that, algorithmically, we could give students much better guidance about where they’re most likely to thrive.
I was going to read some of the questions and the comments, and I wanted to encourage others of you to submit comments. Betsy, “I agree that we need new ideas. Here are my issues at the outset. How do you hear the student voice in these ideas? Students who are middle class and up might not have had those things overcome and might struggle with questions about overcoming. Also, video tends to be a bigger burden to many students”.
Let me start from the last point up. As Trisha has said, we really have to standardize the video production aspect of this. This has to be a very simple video production that everybody does because otherwise, we will have a serious equity issue around the use of videos. We are also giving students an audio option, and the audio option seems simpler and more equitable than video too, so that’s another option that students have.
There are students who are in middle-class and upper-class communities who do have struggles of different kinds, so we want people to have the opportunity to share those struggles. Many of the kinds of challenges and struggles we’re going to be talking about are falling in the category of environmental challenges, things like not having access to a tutor, not having access to adequate school materials, not having access to SAT prep. Those are more the kinds of things that we’re talking about when we’re talking about correcting for equity. We’re focusing on equity.
Janine, “I like this idea of an identification scale for students, teachers, and counselors. However, as a counselor with over 700 seniors, to have to do another form above and beyond the time of spending recommendations is super time-consuming, same for teachers. It’s pronounced score, right? This year? We are finding the removal Common App form is very time-saving for all faculty. It gives us more time to craft thoughtful recommendations for the student”.
Sadie or Trisha, I don’t know if you want to respond to either of these, but I will say that we are highly mindful, conscientious about wanting to not add but instead relieve burdens for folks in this. Sadie or Trisha, do you want to respond to this one?
Harlan: Yes, absolutely. I’d say that, Janine, what you expressed was definitely echoed by the counselors that we had in the room at this convening, and so just an example of something we’ve thought about in terms of not just adding something that increases the burden, but trying to reduce burden on counselors, so you can really focus on advocating for your students.
It’s, like you said, taking a closer look at the actual Common App recommendation form and understanding not just the burden it puts on counselors as they’re filling it out, but also the inconsistency it creates, the lack of transparency it creates for counselors. Some counselors fill out the grid at the top, other counselors consciously don’t because they don’t want colleges to see that grid and ignore all of the qualitative information, so more information to come there. We are taking a critical look at really how we structure those recommendation forms, so definitely a great point.
Weissbourd: Okay. Jonathan, if you want to let us know why you don’t like the sound of video submissions, that would be helpful. You raised the concern about them. We have our concerns as well, but we’d be very interested in hearing your concerns.
April, I’m going to read your comment. “I like the idea of having recommenders come in as a set of values, characters traits. It would be important to have them define what a particular value means to them, and then share a concrete example of how the student has demonstrated that value, character trait. I also like the idea of having them rank order character traits with a clear definition for the student’s consistency for demonstrating the trait”.
Very important point and this is one thing we have talked about doing as Trisha has said. It’s one possibility is getting a list of eight or ten traits, having people pick the three or four that most exemplify them, but also providing a concrete example of how that trait is demonstrated. If we did that across multiple folks, if we had the student do it and the recommenders do it as well, all providing examples, we’d also get a sense of whether they’re talking about the same quality or not. The examples may reveal the degree to which there’s convergence.
The important thing here is, in many ways, the level of convergence versus divergence because convergence, the psychometricians all agree, is a much stronger sign that that trait actually exists in someone if the person themself and multiple other recommenders are identifying the same trait.
Joanna, “I’ve had several parents this year ask if they could provide feedback in that application about their son and daughter. We need to widen the circle of who can offer recommendations. We are with you totally a thousand percent. The pandemic has highlighted this”.
I think that’s absolutely right, and I also think that we can’t expect peers and bosses and all these folks to have the same familiarity or skill with writing recommendations as counselors who do this for a living, and that’s one of the reasons that we feel like we want to broaden the scope of recommenders but also give these folks guidance on writing a recommendation and different forms, different modes of delivery, either audio, video, or written.
Sarah, “I’m gravitating the most towards concepts two and four. I like the Situational Judgment Tests and multiple respondents. I do not like the idea of narrative prompts about challenges. It works okay for that particular population, but sometimes, the challenges overwhelm the application and make it difficult to get it multiple done dimension to the student. I also worry about how much that could go awry with more privileged students if they have access to that question”.
These are great points, Sarah, and these are things we’re thinking about a lot. I think there are a few things that worry us. One term the groups have been using is asking kids to “pimp their trauma.” We don’t want kids to feel like they have to exploit their trauma to get into college. I think there are ways that, as Trisha suggested, of framing the question that will lessen the chance that kids feel that way, but I’m also worried.
I say this having been done graduate school admissions, that often when we hear about kids who have had challenges, it makes us– people on the committee — become concerned that this is a person who has had adversity or challenges, who may be vulnerable here. I think it’s really important to phrase these questions in a way that it doesn’t overwhelm the application and that allows students to express and demonstrate their strengths in ways that are persuasive to admissions officers. We really need to pilot and test these with admissions officers to see how they respond.
Anderson: Thank you, Rick. Thank you everyone for your ideas and thoughts. I just want to close by responding to Lee’s question here, which is, “Why share this information if institutions aren’t showing inclination to support character growth? What are colleges doing to be intentional about fostering character once students are enrolled?” We can’t agree more. We really think this is just the beginning. I think that if we do this right, ideally colleges would use this information for more than just admissions.
You’ve got all this rich data set about people. Let’s use that once they’re enrolled to find classes that will support them, to find groups that will support them, to find what they need and give it to them. How we think about admissions is very much just the beginning. It’s just the piece that we have some leverage with, but it really is just the beginning in what we think is a really important set of work with students that is needed in colleges.
Weissbourd: I totally agree with Trisha on this point about colleges supporting ethical character, but I will also say it’s important to support ethical character at every age for every kid, all the time. The degree to which the Common App is sending a signal to high school students — that ethical character is important and valued, not just athletic achievement, not just academic achievement, not just how many AP courses you have, not just how many extracurricular activities, but whether you’re a good person — seems vitally important to me. I will stop there. Thank you all much.
D. Fireside Chat: NACAC and Advancing Holistic Admission
Bob Massa, Board Chair, Character Collaborative: Welcome all. Now we are going to hear from David Hawkins who serves as Chief Education and Policy Officer of the National Association for College Admission Counseling and Ffiona Rees, who serves as the Deputy Director of Admission at UCLA and is also NACAC’s first board chair. Actually, the role of president of NACAC has been transformed into the role of Chair of the Board. I am grateful to have both David and Ffiona with us today. We’ll spend about 30 minutes in discussion, and then we’ll take some questions and observations from our colleagues in attendance for the balance of our 45 minutes together
Let’s get started. David and Ffiona, again, welcome. I am really glad to have both of you here. I’m interested in your respective responses to a broad question. What does holistic admissions mean to you? Do you think it can be defined or perhaps only described? Ffiona, I’m going to turn to you as a practitioner first.
Ffiona Rees, Board Chair, NACAC, and Deputy Director of Admission, UCLA: Sure. Good afternoon, everybody. Good morning, I guess, if you’re still in Hawaii. It’s a pleasure to be with you today. As I’m talking and I say things like talking in classroom and grass, you’ll notice that I have a slight funky accent. I actually grew up between the US and the UK. Whenever I asked about holistic admission, I can’t help but think of this from a European high school standpoint where, when you’re applying to universities, through much of the world, actually, the first question they’ll ask you is what do you want to study. Then they’ll rattle off, “These are the requirements. These are what subjects you need to take. These are what grades you need to have in order to be admissible to our institutions”.
It’s fairly straightforward. It’s somewhat formulaic. I think the beauty of the US educational system is that it is nicely confusing. There’s a whole world of gray in the middle. I’ll often joke that you can ask that same question to a US admission officer, and we’ll say, “Well, you need a little of this and you need a little of that. Then you need some of this, and then maybe here’s what the decision would look like.” I think within the US, we often think that holistic admission is more predictable than it really is.
The reality is that predictable is a close cousin of formulaic. That is, I think, somewhat, the opposite of what we’re trying to do. I will often joke that when you’re talking to a US admission officer, if we were playing a game of bingo in the conversation, the two free squares in the middle would either be, it depends or context. I think that is very true, that we are looking at a variety of factors. We’re looking at the activities. We’re looking at recommendations. We’re looking at essays, we’re looking at fit. We’re looking at demonstrated interest in some cases, looking at legacy.
That I think is true for a vast majority of the highly selective institutions. I also think we need to acknowledge that for a vast majority of the universities and colleges in the United States, they are a little more formulaic of traditionally, it’s been this GPA and this test score is likely to lead to this type of decision, or this test score and this GPA might lead to this type of scholarship. The reality is that actually works for a vast majority of the institutions in the US. That’s how a lot of students are ultimately enrolling in post-secondary education. Again, it depends as to who you’re asking, but yes, I do think holistic admission can broadly be defined.
David Hawkins, Chief Education and Policy Officer, NACAC: Again, I will reiterate Ffiona’s. Thanks for having me here. It’s always a pleasure to see you, Bob, and to talk to the folks at the Character Collaborative. We’ve really enjoyed our partnership with you all over these last years. I think in terms of the definition of holistic admission or the description of holistic admission, I guess we can all debate which word we use.
I certainly will win Ffiona’s bingo or at least get one of the squares in there because I include the word context. My thoughts about what this means or my observations over the years, it’s really a process by which an institution takes into account any of a multitude of factors that can indicate either likelihood of success or even ability to benefit from an educational experience, and added to that, the context by which one can interpret those factors. There you go, Fiona, I got your bingo square field because it does depend. There are a lot of different institutions, there are a lot of different ways in which those institutions do admissions, though as Ffiona said, they certainly fall into some patterns.
My sense is that– and I think the sense we try to take at NACAC — there’s just maybe not quite an endless array of factors, but a fairly large number of ways in which one can look at a student and determine whether that student will somehow, someway fit or succeed at the institution. It’s a very broad kind of thing, but I do think we can generally describe it because if we don’t, we’re going to get in trouble because people are going to define it for us.
Massa: Well, let’s follow up on that, David, a little bit more narrowly. What’s NACAC’S vision for advancing holistic admission. Is this something that you think every institution can initiate no matter where they fall on the selectivity spectrum, for example?
Hawkins: I think that is a fairly accurate way to describe our approach to this. When a lot of people think of holistic admission, they’re thinking the high stakes Supreme Court cases with the highly selective colleges. With the work we’ve been doing, we certainly advocate and support holistic admissions. When it does come up in that judicial context, we’re right there supporting it. In fact, it’s a lot broader than that. I think our approach really is to devote energy to trying to broaden the field a little bit — to encourage and facilitate these conversations about what this in fact does mean.
I think one of the things that we’ve recognized as we’ve worked with various groups who have been in this space is that the reason that college admissions can become formulaic is because it is such a large process that has to fit through such a small window. Both a window of staff capacity and time. There’s all sorts of constraints that we seem to encounter. I think that the value we’ve been able to add over the years is to try to be able to broaden that window a little bit, to get people to step back and think about, “Okay, hold on a second.” It’s not just about a single factor.
We could be talking about expanding what we learned from a K-12 experience. That could be part of holistic admission. How well does the GPA or even grades really represent the look we’re getting at students? While at the same time working with this group to try to further define, what does it mean when we say we want to factor character into our considerations? Maybe how do we operationalize it.
I think not just the advocacy that we always think of, which is going to the government or the judiciary and stating our case, but also really just being a forum for ensuring that everybody understands what this means and how we can execute it and start to think differently about practice.
Massa: We talk about the selectivity spectrum and institutions that are highly selective might be able to be more “holistic” in their selection criteria than institutions that are less selective. Although I don’t agree necessarily with that, it may be a common perception. In addition, Ffiona, since you represent an institution that is highly selective and that receives more applications than any other university in the U.S., how would you use character attributes or other student attributes and profiles in the admission process?
Rees: Yes, we do get a very large number of applications. Actually, I was listening to the previous session and I think it’s a lot of the same conversations that you’re having of really trying to use that context of a student. What challenges, what obstacles, what opportunities have they faced within their environment. I think that’s what holistic admissions is really about, of trying to place the student within their environment.
That could be the academic environment of their school, that could be the resources that are available within their school, it could be the resources available within their family. I think there are some good sides that have come out of the last two years, that I think as a community, we’ve perhaps become a little bit more aware of some of the resource differences that are truly available to students and how, even in the last 18 months, they’ve been able to access education. I think that is hopefully coming through more and more both through the students and their application, but also in how they’re being reviewed by the different colleges and universities on that back end.
Massa: Do you think there are particular student attributes or profiles that are central to our view of higher education’s future – different skills, for example — that might be required for successful careers, for citizenry, for life. Anything come to mind?
Rees: Well, I think the new NACAC mission and vision that is very clearly focused on providing post-secondary education and that it should be accessible to all is really the key, and it is incredibly broad. It is an understanding– David and I were sitting around the table when we were talking about what that new mission and vision should be, but it is the idea that as a country and as a world, we are better citizens, we’re better individuals, we’re better societies, we’re going to have better economies if we have an educated citizenry.
However that does not mean that every individual needs to go to college or university. Again, using my European background, I’m actually quite firm in that belief that college and university is not for everybody, but that if you want it, it is accessible to you, however that may be. Then as far as what those characteristics may be in the actual review, I’m going to use the “it depends” answer. It depends on the college, and the major, and what the student is looking for. Is the student a first-year applicant, or a transfer applicant? There are students who have remarkably similar characteristics, or they can have remarkably different paths taken to get to a four-year institution.
Hawkins: If it’s okay, Bob, I might tack onto what Ffiona just said right there at the end that some of what we’ve been doing at NACAC demonstrates the breadth of what we’re talking about here. We’ve been involved in this effort, so clearly there is a notion about character that being a caring, ethically focused mindful person is important to success and to your own welfare, but to the welfare of others as well.
We’ve also been involved with a couple of organizations that are more focused on subject matter. For instance, we’ve been working with a group called Just Equations that is looking at equity and mathematics. For a long time, we’ve accepted the notion that calculus was really the coin of the realm when it came to college readiness.
A lot of the research is showing that in fact, statistics could potentially be more important for a lot more students than calculus, both in terms of future success, what you might actually use math for on a day-to-day basis in the workforce, but also just as an abstract concept that it requires a lot of the same types of skills. We’re working with them to try to educate people about the expanding thinking about where mathematics is taking us and what is needed in terms of those academic skills. The final thing I’ll mention is that we’ve been part for the last four or five years of this Reimagining College Access Initiative with the Learning Policy Institute, where we’re looking at performance-based assessments as an alternative to the traditional grading scale and potentially to standardized admission tests as well, but these are instruments that give you not just sort of how the students scored on an academic rubric, but how they also approach tasks, where their strengths are, whether they are good collaborators, whether they are good speakers, organizers, you name it.
They’re giving us a much more robust assessment with a lot more data points and those data points, I think, are more illustrative of what might make someone successful in life after high school no matter what they do, and they can help colleges with admissions and placement and all sorts of things. That just gives you some sense of the variety of different ways we’re trying to interact with the rest of the world so that we’re at the table, but also that the information they’re generating is coming back to the admission office as well.
Massa: Yes, and I think that’s an excellent point because, as we heard earlier from Jon McGee in his Keynote and Jon Burdick in his response, we like to measure things and we rely on that in college admission. I’m not saying that everything has to be objective in our evaluations, but we need something that can give us more of a sense that students are being treated consistently in the process. This is better than just, “Y’all come and we’ll figure it out as we go along.” Let’s shift a little bit from this kind of broad vision to institutional or to current realities nationally.
The pandemic obviously, forced a more holistic read on some institutions, that some of them probably weren’t really prepared to do that. Do you think that that necessary pivot increased the likelihood of a more universal acceptance of holistic admission standards and where do you think we are now, almost two years into the pandemic, with regard to holistic admission nationally? Ffiona?
Rees: Sure. Long-winded answer coming so bear with me. I guess to give you the short answer, yes, I do think it’s caused people to be more aware of different factors to perhaps move in a more holistic direction, but the verdict is still out. We’re still seeing institutions who are saying, “We kind of want to go back to where we were, or we’re still using some of the same criteria for certain selection processes,” so we’ll see sort of how we continue to evolve.
I also think we need to go pre-pandemic, that the reality is that we can talk about holistic admission, and we can talk about why we think it’s great. The general public believes in it when it works for them and then the moment it doesn’t, suddenly, it’s a broken system and Varsity Blues did nothing to help us with that public trust. We can all stand here and say it was not an admission scandal, but you turn on the news, and they will still refer to it as the admission scandal.
You mentioned it earlier, there’s this tremendous focus on the bottleneck of institutions, ignoring the vast majority of other universities that are out there, but I do also think that we need to shine a little bit of a spotlight on our own processes on what we’re doing, where are we being transparent and where we’re not being transparent even on our own websites. If we say we practice holistic admission, are we showing where we’re giving preference?
Are we showing different admit rates between early decision and regular decision on our website? It’s tough for us to ask the public to trust us if we’re not being fully transparent and forthright in our own information. As I mentioned, I do think the global pandemic of the last two years has helped teach us a lot of lessons, and as a former professor used to say, “the mind once stretched will never shrink back,” and that’s a good thing. We’ve learned a lot but I also think we need to talk about what we’re doing internally within our offices once we get these applications. What type of education are we doing for our reviewers?
Are we really talking about the nuances of recommendations and how a recommendation from one type of school is probably going to look and read quite differently than a recommendation from another school, especially when it comes to counselor recommendations when you’re looking at counselors who’ve got worst caseloads of 900 plus students? They’re just not going to be as detailed. I understand why recommendations can play a very important role in this but again, they are incredibly subjective so we need to make sure that we are teaching our readers how to look for some of these nuances.
Not just look at two of them together and saying, “Well, this one’s better than the other one, therefore the student must be better.” Same thing with essay assistance. In the spring there was a New York Times article that came out talking about socio-economic background and the quality of an essay and how much role that can play. We need to acknowledge that as well, that what students are writing about, the context, how they’re writing is really important and again, these are things that we need to be teaching our readers.
Last session talked about activities, and what is the importance of activities and how much emphasis are we placing on them? Yes, recognizing that having a part-time job, taking care of older family members, taking care of younger siblings is a very critical activity, but also understanding that some families might be saying to their child, “Yes, you can’t participate in after school activities because they’re not safe, we need you to home.” There’s a whole world of gray that we really need to be training our readers to recognize and then looking at how we’re reviewing that in the committee process.
It’s helpful when you’ve got things like committee-based evaluation where you’ve got two readers. If you have two readers who are coming from a fairly similar background, you might actually be almost doubling down on the implicit bias that we have. What type of training are we doing within our office on implicit bias? We’ve all got it, so where are our blind spots? How are you helping to preserve and correct those during the review process and same thing with our profession? What are our blind spots when it comes around legacy, early decision and early action, athletic recruiting?
These are often models that honestly preserve those who are more privileged than others and so we need to be having these painful conversations about what is it that we’re doing before we can truly turn to the public. It was a long-winded answer to say, “Yes, holistic admission is important, and here’s why we need to do our work too.”
Massa: Indeed. In some ways holistic admission makes it a little bit more difficult to be transparent. It’s easy to say, “Well our middle range of test scores is this,” but it’s a little bit more difficult to say, “Well, we’re looking for ambitious leaders who are motivated through integrity,” but, whatever it is, we decide what is important to our institution as Rick was talking about earlier, and we need to be able to be able to signal that. David?
Hawkins: Yes, I would simply add to Ffiona’s pretty comprehensive response that the pandemic has pried open a box of sorts and I think it’s a good box on balance. I think people have realized that there’s a lot that we’re not catching in this process. I know we’re going to talk a little bit about test-optional here but if you’d come to me a couple of years ago, and said that we’d have sort of an avalanche of institutions going test-optional in 2020, I would have probably guessed that there was some catastrophe, so in one way I would have been right, but I wouldn’t have been able to guess exactly what that was.
In any event not to comment on the value of test optional in one way or the other, but more just that there must have been something that precipitated it. Likewise, I think that the pandemic has shown people that there’s just a lot more things that we have to think carefully about. I’m not just talking about college admission here, I’m thinking the world was sort of laid bare in a lot of ways. It’s an opportunity. I think it’s a moment for us to take advantage of people thinking differently in general and one reason why we have wanted to accelerate our work in this area to make sure that we’re providing that forum.
Massa: Yes, and you mentioned test-optional. I know that my crystal ball is pretty cloudy these days, but what is your crystal ball telling you about the long term role of standardized testing in college admissions now that 75% of four-year colleges and universities in this country are test-optional?
Rees: I think it’s a horse that’s going to be hard to put back in the barn if you’re in the pro-testing category, that the vast majority will at least remain test-optional. I would encourage that we continue to push the conversation about whether we really need to be test-optional or is test blind, in fact, the more equitable way to go? I’m not saying it’s one versus the other, but I do think that it’s a conversation that we need to have.
I do think there’s been a fair bit of conversation but again, we need to keep shining a spotlight on where the awarding of scholarships and financial aid and things like that might be dependent on testing. If there is an equity inequality, it’s right there. Again, we need to look at our whole process beyond just testing. When a lot of institutions moved to test-optional, there was a lot of back-patting, rightly so, about how we’ve made things more equitable. As I said earlier, I still think there’s a lot of pieces of our process that aren’t fully equitable, and we need to keep looking at those and expanding that conversation as well.
Hawkins: I would simply say that certainly, the pendulum looks like it is swinging, and I, too, would describe my crystal ball as cloudy, perpetually so at that. It does seem like as Ffiona said, the horse is out of the barn. That’s partly because, as I’ve mentioned, the hardest thing about going test-optional, is usually just making the decision, and the pandemic sent us straight to GO on the Monopoly board, so to speak. It really short-circuited that whole process of deliberation ahead of time.
That said, I think folks will see generally, not just admissions officers, but students, other stakeholders, institutional leaders, will see that you can do admissions without tests. We can discuss whether tests add value, whether they don’t and of course, that’s an institutional decision because it might vary by institution. I do think it is something that NACAC recognized early, beginning way back in 2008, when we did an initial commission on testing and then culminating with the September 2020 report that we issued on testing.
It is more apparent that the equity challenges are becoming increasingly acute, that they’re something we really need to account for, and that colleges are going to have to think really carefully about the pros and cons about whether the benefits that tests derive balance out with the costs that are imposed on students, on high schools, on others, in terms of the requirements to test and the equity concerns as well. You really have to think carefully about that. It just looks increasingly like the balance doesn’t shake out terribly well for tests in a lot of situations.
Massa: Yes. This is an incredibly complex issue. It’s not tests bad/holistic admission good. In some ways, tests do help to find talent that otherwise, wouldn’t be found, but I am struck by Ffiona’s comment regarding test blind versus test-optional. It reminds me of the effort that NACAC made early in the fall last year, when college admissions deans signed a statement saying, “Yes, we really are test-optional. Yes, we really will not penalize you if you do not submit scores.”
My sense is, for the most part, that students who were applying to highly selective colleges didn’t buy that commitment from the deans, especially for those students who were stretching in applying to certain institutions. What are your thoughts on that Ffiona and David?
Rees: I guess being fairly transparent, I have learned it in the test blind category, that I think there is a privilege that goes with having the advice of, “Do I submit a test score or don’t I? When is it going to help me, when might it hurt me?” That typically comes from the advice that students are either paying to get or getting through a good resource school. There’s just a tremendous amount of confusion. I will also say from a practitioner standpoint, there is an advantage to just, you cannot unsee what you have seen. It is actually a little easier to just say, “We’re not seeing them at all, and here’s why.”
That does not mean that other aspects of testing English proficiency, AP, IB, those types of scores couldn’t and shouldn’t be included in the review process. One of the other things that you were saying is, often when we’re talking about holistic admission, we think that it’s testing and GPA equals decision and for holistic admission, it is, these are two factors of many, probably a dozen. If you remove one of those factors, you’re still leaving an awful lot that is factoring into that decision.
Hawkins: I’ll just mainly address the question about the students, because if there is one thing that has struck us here at NACAC, it is that there are a lot of students and families who just don’t believe that colleges aren’t going to somehow get your test scores or somehow integrate them into the decision. As an organization that really is focused on transparency as a key to a good ethical admission process, it’s frustrating that the public is skeptical when institutions are, in fact, quite upfront about what they’re going to do.
Now, we’ve had people say, “Well, this institution isn’t very clear in what they’re saying, or they’re contradictory in this case, in that case,” so there are always outliers. Students and parents are not “almost believing” what we’re saying; it is a very interesting phenomenon to observe. I do think it’s important for an organization like NACAC, but also our member institutions, to repeat ad nauseum to students and families that this is really the case – we mean what we say about the tests.
“If we say X, it doesn’t even have to be about test-optional or test-free admission but if we say X, this is what it means and when we say it, you can believe us,” so that’s something that’s important to pay attention to.
Massa: I think it is incredibly important to communicate well, and to attempt, on our part anyway, to understand what students and families are hearing because what we think we’re saying, and what they’re hearing may be two different things.
Rees: I would just challenge all of us as well, too, if you are test-optional, to be putting that information on your website so that everybody can get it, whether they choose to is an entirely different matter, but if you’re test-optional, what percentage of your students have you accepted, submitted tests? Same thing for scholarships, that’s part of that transparency, and part of that trust-building that, again, if we’re saying, “No, no, no, trust us,” but we’re not sharing that information back, it’s going to be an uphill battle.
Massa: Yes. Great point. I want to turn it over to our colleagues in attendance in just a second. Just very quickly, before I do, David mentioned earlier about the partnership, that Character Collaborative has with NACAC, in providing professional development workshops around character assessment. Are there other active and/or planned programming that NACAC has to undergird the use of holistic admissions?
Hawkins: I’ll just mention quickly a few things. One is that we are about to issue a report that we wrote as a result of a Lumina Foundation Grant on racial equity and admissions. I think, without giving away too much, because we haven’t yet fully finalized the report, there will certainly be a discussion of that and we certainly plan to follow that up, follow that report up with more activity so stay tuned on that front.
The Reimagining College Access Initiative is something we are going to continue into 2022 and I think we want to try to involve as many institutions as we can in that initiative. Then the last thing I’ll mention, in addition to our educational offerings, webinars and conferences like the Inclusion Conference in the summer, we will also be continuing our participation in the Access and Diversity Collaborative, which is a great forum.
It’s a great multi-organization, multi-institution, effort to help advocate for admission policies and practices that will result in more robust, more contextualized, more holistic decisions in the name of advancing racial and socio-economic equity. Those are the top lines of that, that I throw out there.
Rees: I would put in a personal plug for NACAC’s Antiracist Institute. They’re doing a part two. A vast majority of my team participated last year and we got a tremendous amount from it. It gets to that idea of implicit bias and understanding these critical issues. That I think that is a fairly easy way that you can have true experts come in and help teach your team.
Massa: Great, and as long as we’re plugging away, I will shamelessly plug, the very next Character Collaborative/NACAC course: “Application Essays: Evaluating and Advising with Character in Mind” that Sally McGinty, formerly of Harvard, is leading. We’re very excited about that. That should be released in early December so be on the lookout for that.
Lee Ellis, audience: My question Ffiona is for you actually. I’m just wondering what kinds of conversations you’re having with your colleagues in the academic arena, about holistic education at UCLA? We’re using an idea of holistic admissions to bring students and we’re telling them about all these wonderful things that are important, along with perhaps their academic performance test scores, and what have you, but how is that following through? What’s the influence or what’s the impact once a student is enrolled? Is there a holistic approach?
I realize it’s a huge institution but is there a holistic approach when students get in because I would think that if we’re asking questions related to a holistic approach to bring them in, and there’s not a holistic approach in terms of what happens when they’re there, and on their way out, then, are we actually being transparent? Are we actually being honest about the experience that they’re going to receive when students are enrolled?
Rees: I’ll answer this in a couple different ways. One of which is that like most colleges and universities, our admission policy is set by faculty. They are the ones themselves that say, “These are the factors that are important.” Within the University of California, every campus has representation up to a University of California faculty board. For a good number of years, we have what we call comprehensive review, and we have holistic review. Comprehensive review is now 13, it was 14, factors that we could consider, and holistic is how we can consider them.
For us, this has actually been something that we’ve been doing for more than a decade so this is not a new shift. To the question of how are campuses and colleges doing with the holistic approach, I would hope that those are conversations that are taking place on every single campus. There’s the automatic feedback of, “I think we’re going to know if faculty are not happy with the students that we’re bringing in.”
That’s how most Dean’s and directors and vice presidents are assessing how well they’re doing is how happy are the faculty. Again, they will happily let us know if they think things are going slightly off rails and that’s a good thing because they are the ones that are teaching these students. They’re the ones that are in the classroom for four years. Yes, those conversations are taking place that I would hope and believe that they are taking place on most colleges.
Shalin (audience): Great discussion everybody. This was really helpful. I want to continue the discussion and it’s a two-part question. I want to continue the conversation on test-optional versus test blind and I want to focus on this notion of individual application evaluation versus a standardized form.
If you were to go test blind completely, with no common platform to evaluate students individually, does that, down the road, maybe five, 10 years, actually create more problems with equity, and transparency, as opposed to less problems? Then Part B to that is, if you are continuing holistic evaluations, why have schools been so hesitant to try assessment tools in terms of character development?
Hawkins: I can start out. Shalin, thank you for the question. We’ve had the question come up certainly about what does the future look like if you take tests out — do things get better or worse? I do think one thing that’s a challenge for the admission profession is this idea of a common yardstick. It’s something we hear fairly frequently in regards to the two tests. The underlying concern, and this applies to grades as well as to test, is that students aren’t starting from the same point. It’s tough to take a single yardstick and go, “Well, how do these compare?” That’s why context matters so much.
I think that the research that we’ve seen over the years tends to suggest that rather than to ameliorate these inequity issues, there are many times where tests actually exacerbate them. Now, that’s not true in every case — you have to look at a lot of different studies and so there are a lot of things that have different results to them. Just knowing that there are structural inequities that we have to address, the long-term question about equity has to deal with the underlying problems as opposed to what we try to do right there at the finish line.
I think that’s I would say. Now, as Bob said earlier, this is a large and complex issue. While the horse may be out of the barn on a lot of this, there are a lot of ways in which tests are going to be around whether it’s institutions or state requirements or things like that. The future is definitely very murky in terms of this but the real core of your question, I’ll just say, the extent to which we can better understand the holistic ways in which students are successful in higher education, which we don’t have a great understanding at right now, is going to be what becomes the more common yardstick.
I think that’s to tie this all up in a knot. If we can develop a more nuanced and complex view of what generally makes students successful, then I think we can apply that in different contexts, even in different ways.
Ffiona: I guess to answer the second part of your question, I spent a fair bit of time waxing poetic about how we, on the admissions side, need to be conscious of our own biases, we need to be conscious of how we’re training our readers. I think when it comes to character-based assessments in high school, that’s also something that we need to be considering if we’re moving in that direction.
Again, my European side could stand here for the next 30 minutes and talk about the pros and cons of standardized versus not standardized, but as a country, we are not standardized. We are not standardized, even within a state, let alone a country and that is one of the complexities. Saying “these are our average GPAs,” I could just as easily tell you that we admitted a student who had three giraffes, six rhinoceros, five elephants as grades because it really doesn’t mean a whole lot from school to school to school, let alone when you get into the rigor and the availability of rigor. It is really complex, in a good way, but it is very murky. I think that some of the hesitancy is the sheer volume of how are we going to be getting data in addition to concerns of, for example, science and engineering faculty who want to know that students have mastered a certain level of math and science because again, that’s all part of the give and take.
Massa: In some ways, the good news here is that for the most part, we mostly know what we don’t know and so hopefully, that will help us make better decisions going forward. Shalin, thank you for that question. We are running out of time but I do want to ask Sally McGinty, to come on. Sally is the leader of our next course and April has asked when we’re going to get information about that? I would just say that the Character Collaborative will be promoting that course that through NACAC within the next few weeks, but the one who knows about that is on screen now. Sally.
Sally McGinty: Thank you. A good portion of this Character Collaborative course in partnership with NACAC is to look at this question from the point of view of admissions officers and how admission officers read and evaluate with character in mind and another very substantial portion is really directed at counselors in the very broadest sense of that word.
That is the counselors in schools, but there are many other people who counsel young people, family, coaches, teachers, and we are trying to put into this a lot of practical material, shared exercises, and other successful bits that all of these people have over the years developed that could be applied in other schools and other settings to help tease out and get students thinking about as we heard from John, “Who am I?” Not, “What do I want?” Not, “What have I done?”
My favorite is Elijah Megginson who wrote a wonderful piece in The Times about why I chose not to sell my pain as he said, I have a wonderful interview with him happily at Morehouse College as a first-year and I hope you will look forward to receiving this because I am so much looking forward to delivering it. Thank you, Bob.
Massa: Yes, thank you, Sally, and thank you David, for all of your help and encouragement and at NACAC. I also want to thank Ffiona, you’ve got a yeoman’s job ahead of you for the next year, so best of luck to you and thank you all for joining us.
E. What We Learned Over the Past 18 Months: David Holmes
Thank you for the thoughtful comments submitted during this afternoon’s break. We asked conference participants to respond to this question:
Recognizing that over the past year the global pandemic threatened our ability to recruit, enroll and educate students, how did you, your colleagues and your institution/organization adapt? How did this help you address future challenges?
Because we have had just 45 minutes to digest your comments, it isn’t feasible to summarize what you submitted. Rather, I will convey a sampling of comments that provide valuable insight. These “lessons learned” constitute an excellent lead-in to tomorrow’s conference sessions.
Comment #1: Much of the year has involved observing students and how they have reacted and adapted to the isolation of the pandemic. I don’t have answers, just questions and concerns. My main concern involves the students who, for whatever reason, could not adapt to the online format. As high schoolers, not all have the discipline and organizational skills and even the mental/emotional capacity through the isolation of the pandemic to handle hour after hour and day after day of remote learning. So for some, grades have plummeted although ability has not.
Therefore, I am grappling with these questions: How do we as professionals encourage these students that not all is lost and that their college careers and beyond can still be successful? How do high school counselors communicate such issues to colleges for individual students (and is it appropriate to do so or do they need parental consent), and how do colleges consider a student who has had a precipitous dip in grades during a pandemic?
My response has been to be sympathetic and encouraging yet realistic. But I worry that students and families are even less realistic than in the past. I also worry as to what will happen when this crop of seniors hears back from colleges with other than good news, and how they will be able to navigate their college careers.
Comment #2: From the vantage point of advising high school students during the pandemic, there were those who suffered no trauma but hit a low point of lethargy. Last March 2021, I found that for current seniors grades were lower for top students.
For sure, the past year has taken its toll.
Yet, current seniors took advantage of online tours and info sessions, loved student panels, and learned more about a college than the typical campus tour. But only an in-person tour — or even uninvited walks around campus — could accomplish that. –
Comment #3: Test-optional has become an instrument of torture for some students, even though it clearly needed to happen because of Covid. Intentions were pure: A student has a 31 on the ACT and is applying to an ultra-selective school, but the kid, parents and advisor all have to think–is the student better off NOT submitting this strong score at certain schools? To submit or not and where has become an unintended stress factor. It is hard on a kid who worked hard to raise scores and then to hear from Mom, Dad or advisor: “Don’t submit.” Easier when they just sent them in with the rest of the app.
Comment #4: Direct contact still works the best. When a student emails a college rep and gets a personal response, it is so powerful. But there are too many marketing-type emails and kids scroll right by them: “Uh-oh, more than 250 words. I am stopping.” In counseling students as an IEC, I (1) helped students focus on what was in their control and (2) encouraged them to rely on relationships with the counselor across the desk to understand what was happening on campuses and how institutions were reacting. For me, there is more communication with students and parents than ever.
Comment #5: This year, we are back to in-person classes, and the college counseling appointments are also in person. More of them, but at times less effective. Thoughtful engagement can happen, but is not guaranteed. As for other changes, more students (this year) intend to apply ED and/or EA. A real sense of urgency. How do we find time to keep the fundamental issues of Character Collaborative in front of us?
Comment #6: Students are more lost in the process than I have ever seen in my career. As a high school counselor, I am doing more hand-holding than I ever have as they are lost in process, feeling less engaged, and lost in understanding themselves, their goals and what they potentially want. Many have been told that “scores matter” and that “involvement/volunteering matters”, but now we are shifting and telling them scores don’t matter and they have not been able to volunteer. Many of them have not had enriching experiences over the past few years, so are struggling to find identity and connection.
Comment #7: More students than normal have been dropping classes and complaining of exhaustion. In terms of the college process, my senior students are behind where they normally are, scrambling to try to meet the deadlines, not finalizing a college list. I’ve seen mental illness/anxiety skyrocket among my 8-12 grade students. Covid has made the teenager years, always hard, much more difficult.
Comment #8: I learned that families are very concerned about transparency and felt less confident about communications with colleges during Covid (not being able to visit, not knowing what to expect.) Concerns about merit aid and how merit would be assessed if the SAT was not sent was an issue too.
Comment #9: We added more one-on-one meeting times with our students — more checkpoints even if brief — and added in more time to talk to students about how they were really doing. Some silver linings: able to reach broader range of parents all over the world with virtual programs/conferences. We looked at time differently. We were quick to go back to the “normal” way this year, and I wish we stopped to reflect more before we did that. There was something simple about how we dealt with time during the pandemic. We were forced to and it wasn’t all bad.
Comment #10 We have increased our virtual offerings in terms of admissions sessions, financial aid sessions, and live video chats with academic departments. We moved to small group sessions versus large open house/preview day type events.
Comment #11 Our institution (small, all-male liberal arts college in rural Indiana) has always been an “acquired taste”. Visits were always important, but limited on-campus programs devastated our yield. We learned, however, that we can increase apps/interest with fewer (or any) high school visits and fairs. We will have more staffing and resources dedicated to on-campus visits for 2021-2022.
Comment #12 Have found the disconnect of those hired during the pandemic and those with seasoned knowledge to be greater now as the new ones think they know what admission is with a virtual experience as “true knowledge.”
Welcome to Day Two: David Holmes and Bob Massa
In reviewing yesterday’s presentations and rich discussion, three things stood out that set the stage for today.
First, there is shared interest in a more holistic and healthier perspective about youth. Jon McGee’s talk and the respondents brought this out. Also, we heard from our NACAC colleagues that looking more holistically in admission is a high priority. Holistic admission is here to stay.
Second, with respect to COVID, we are not out of the woods yet. There are continuing stress points in school and in the admission process. There are real concerns about the mental health of our youth. Fortunately, there is shared commitment to figure out ways to address these concerns.
Third, the report of the Making Caring Common/Common App (by Rick, Sadie and Trisha) indicated that there is growing wisdom and progress in how to assess character in admission. No approach is perfect — and there is real complexity in this — but the best minds in the nation are working together to develop meaningful, increasingly valid, and usable approaches to character assessment. This is great news for all of us.
Thanks again to all who participated yesterday. Today, we’ll start out with a discussion of issues of wellness for students and parents during COVID and its impact on admission and the “college experience.” We will also hear from practitioners on how admission decisions were made this year without test scores and with COVID transcripts. Finally, we’ll provide an opportunity to work in small groups to create ideas for a new selection paradigm considering character attributes important to individual institutions in the process.
F. “Admission, Wellness and the Impact of COVID on Students and Parents” : Fireside Chat
Moderator: David Holmes, Executive Director, Character Collaborative
Guest: Denise Pope, Senior Lecturer, Stanford University Graduate School of Education, and Co-Founder, Challenge Success
Holmes: It is my pleasure to welcome Denise Pope. Denise has researched and written extensively about student well-being, about parenting for mental health, and about how all this connects to schools and college admission. In addition, Denise has won numerous awards for outstanding teaching over the years at Stanford, and great teaching, as we all know, is a priceless gift to our youth.
Denise, let’s start here. We know that recent years have brought serious concerns about the mental health of young people. Health professionals are overwhelmed, campus counseling offices can’t keep up with demand, and tragically, as you well know, teen suicide is all too common. And yesterday we heard from numerous college counselors about the impact of COVID on the college process and on students. They drew a pretty sobering picture of how students are experiencing online learning, their interactions with counselors and colleges, and their mental state. Denise, how did we get to this place?
Pope: Well, David, that’s a really big question, and I’ve been studying this since 2003. Mental health and college admissions have been an issue since I started this whole process, and where does it start? How early does it start? It turns out, and you know this, there are three-year-olds and four-year-olds walking around with Stanford and Harvard sweatshirts on, right? Part of this is just baked into the culture, and we’ve been studying a group since fall 2018 all the way through the pandemic.
We had 86 high schools represented, with 75,000 students in this study. What we knew even before the pandemic was the mental health of our students was really not good. What did they tend to worry about? I’ll give you a little bit of data here. The major source of stress is around grades and assessments (tests/finals). 75% of the kids say that’s a major source of stress. This is followed by, number two, overall workload and homework, followed by lack of sleep, followed by time management, and then, number five, choosing a college or university.
We know that college admission and academics have been a source of stress for a very long time. We know that academic pressure has caused anxiety, and it has caused sleep deprivation which is very much tied to mental health. Our kids are sleeping on average, about 6.5 hours a night when it should be between 8 and 10 hours a night. We’re seeing higher incidence of anxiety, depression, suicide ideation, all the things that you mentioned, and that was before COVID. Now, let me tell you what we found after COVID. Students self-reported, and over half of them said that their worries about college admissions is up.
Part of that was this weird, funky grading thing that happened in March 2020 with that end of spring semester. Some people didn’t get grades, some people got grades. Some couldn’t visit the colleges. Can you get into an SAT or ACT room to even take the test? We know it was really hard to concentrate on everything in school when all hell was breaking loose in the country, Not just COVID but the race riots, the climate change, the fact that these kids were completely isolated. Yes, I don’t want to be doom and gloom here, but it wasn’t good to before March 2020 and COVID did not help.
Holmes: Well, I know in Challenge Success you have a number of programs that lead you to interact with parents. What are you hearing from parents about the work that you all are doing, Denise?
Pope: Great question. We do parent surveys,, and it’s really interesting. Even during the pandemic, almost 60% of our parents say that they expect excellence in school from their children. Now, to be fair, the parents who will answer our survey were already in schools that have a very, very high percent going on to college. The parents who will answer a survey from us are probably, even more, wound up and on the ball. Almost 60% said “I expect excellence in school for my child.”
“I have very high academic standards for my child” is again over 60%, and parents absolutely worry about where their kids are going to college. One really interesting piece is that the parents feel like their aspirations for their kids are higher than their own children’s aspirations. You can imagine what that turns into at home. There’s talk about college from three years old on. There is talk about college in high school when grades really matter to the parents, and there’s a lot of fear and anxiety that we’re hearing.
Holmes: One of your colleagues has used the phrase, “family branding,” Denise, in terms of the kinds of parents that are out there and what their aspirations are, do you see this social dynamic among the parents that you have been studying or are interacting with? Is family branding in the psychology of, at least, upper-middle-class parents?
Pope: Well, yes. We’re called Challenge Success for a reason. The organization I started is called Challenge Success for a reason because there’s this notion that to be successful in the United States, you must take this very, very straight and narrow path of getting the grades and getting the test scores and getting into college, getting into whatever grad school or job and making money, and that is literally how kids talk to us about success. If you ask parents, and we do this in our workshops, how do they define success?
What they say is happiness and health, and making friends and that kind of thing but we say, well, your kids are saying something else. You’re sending the wrong message somehow in your house because the child in your house thinks success is about grades and college, test scores, making money. But parents are saying no, no, what I want from my child is health and happiness and finding a life of purpose. We explore that disconnect, and we’re called challenge success because we’re challenging that really narrow notion of success.
A lot of what we do is helping to calm parents down: we have a “healthy college admissions” workshop. It’s been popular since COVID because the anxiety is just palpable, and we walk them through just how many colleges and universities are out there. We walk them through the myths about the rankings in the US News and World Report, and we walk them through all the research we know about college outcomes, and that it is much less important where you go to college, and much more important about how you spend the time there. This gets to the point of yesterday’s keynote about fit.
Holmes: That’s a really important point about a disconnect. I can remember in the years that I was head of school at two places, I used to say to parents, we really share the same goals. We want happy, healthy children that are successful in their own terms and have a strong moral foundation. The happy, healthy piece is what you hear when you talk to parents very deeply. That’s what they say but then there’s the disconnect you’re describing. When their kids get into the junior year or in the senior year, a lot of that goes out the window.
Pope: Well, think about what parents say at home, and I talk to them about this all the time. I have three kids so I know how hard this is – but the kid walks in the door and the first thing you say is, “how’d you do on the history test?” Or how much homework do you have? Or did you turn in your homework or did you get your application done? Or did you write your essay? Or did you get your essay started?
The communication that we mostly have to our kids is not “Hey, did you make a friend today? Did you do a good deed today? Did you take out the trash today?” Most of the conversation in these middle to upper, middle-class homes has to do with academics, and that’s why these messages are getting sent to kids. The Stanford sweatshirts and the Harvard sweatshirts that you walk around with in the house, compounded what you hear in the media, doesn’t help either.
Holmes: Thinking about the health services that students need, maybe you could comment on this. I’ve observed in various locations that the health professionals in the community are overwhelmed, the psychologists and the counselors, and they have long waiting lists. Then you look at the college campus, and we know the counseling offices are absolutely overwhelmed. Is this something you see across the nation and locally?
Pope: Very much so. In fact, I’ve been on a mental health and wellness task force at Stanford for several years now, trying to get some kind of triage in place. If you called up five years ago, it would be a two-week wait to have anybody talk to you, and that’s not going to work. I have someone I know whose child just started college on the east coast, who was contemplating suicide, and they literally said, “We cannot get you to see anyone for 10 days.” That’s not going to work.We are in a mental health crisis, both at the middle school and high school level and at the college level, for a whole host of reasons. Then you layer COVID on top, you layer 2020 on top, and it just exploded.
Holmes: It just seems to me in our communities where our campuses are, there’s a great need for building a collaboration with those mental health professionals out in the community. That’s easier said than done, first of all, they’re out straight, they don’t have a lot of time to join task forces and that sort of thing, but it just seems to me, and I wonder if you agree, that that’s a missing link in all of this, the connection between what’s happening on campus and locally within the helping professions.
Pope: Absolutely. There’s just not enough. People are stretched thin, there’s not enough clinicians and therapists in the communities to serve the need, and then you run into insurance problems. All of these things make it even harder for a parent to even communicate with the colleges and the universities to get the kid the help they need, never mind little things like how does the kid get to the office if they don’t have a car? orif there’s no public transportation. These little things we deal with at Stanford too. We found a therapist, they have room, it’s a miracle, but oh my gosh, insurance doesn’t work or transportation doesn’t work, et cetera.
Holmes: Well, you alluded to this a little earlier, Denise, in terms of the college admissions process, but to get down to cases, how do you see college admission — the way it works now — contributing to this situation? Perhaps all this is self-evident to those who are here today, but are there some specific things that you see that are not helpful?
Pope: Well, the rankings are not helpful, the hype around this is not helpful. And at individual colleges, I think what also isn’t helpful is when a kid goes on a tour, and now tours are opening up again in some campuses, and you hear, you have to take the most rigorous academic courses available at your high school. That’s sending a message to that individual child that you need to sign up for every AP and honors class known to man.
That might not be the right thing for that particular child, so there’s some messaging that the colleges are sending out about course load, about GPA, about test scores. There’s definitely things that are making it worse, and we found this out at Stanford. One of the things that Stanford did is they dropped one of their admissions questions a couple of years ago after talking to a bunch of us. The question was the “why Stanford question.” How often do you use that to really delineate a kid?
They were all writing the same thing. They just copy whatever you write in your book or on your website, so Stanford took it out. Why create more work for kids when you’re literally not going to use that as part of the process?
Pope: Well, let’s think a little bit about potential solutions, Denise. There’s some things that you have focused on that would get at what I would call the roots of the problem that we’re talking about today. Are there some specific things that you all are thinking about and getting engaged with?
Pope: Well, in the bigger picture, not specific to college, let me do that first. In the bigger picture, we work a lot on this notion of rigor versus load and that you can have a rigorous education without taking five or six AP classes or 10 or 12. You’ve seen how many kids are overscheduled with classes and are also being so overloaded in extracurriculars. We work a lot around balance, around finding the right balance with a rigorous load, the right challenge level, getting enough sleep, having a life and doing chores and exercising and things that we know are related to mental health and physical health and wellbeing.
We also spend a lot of time with parents and students debunking, as I mentioned, the status issue. Where you go to college matters so much in the rankings but it’s much more about how to find the right fit with a college. Where we struggle is that a lot of colleges don’t look all that different on the websites. When you’re trying to find the right college fit, people will come up to us and say, “How do we find the right fit college”? That’s what we do on the parent and student side.
I love that the colleges are becoming test-optional or, even better, test-blind. People don’t believe it. People really don’t trust it. I even talked to a high school college counselor. She said, “I’m not sure if they’re really not using those test scores, if they’re really not looking.” Is there a way for the colleges to say, “Hey, no, this is true, blind means blind and we are not looking, and we’re not factoring that in”?
Is there a way for the colleges to help differentiate themselves by messaging what type of student they are looking for or which students will be the right fit for them? There are some colleges that do that, obviously, like Olin Engineering, and Bard has done some work in that area. So, you can tell the difference because they’re focusing on fit, but they have to help us figure out how the messages from the college side can be passed along to the parents and the students.
Holmes: I guess, in a sense, this is another disconnect piece. For those around the table and in the Character Collaborative, they would agree with everything you’ve said, but then we get to institutional practice and the pressures that we all are under, and the status thing. I recall Stokely Carmichael’s question back in the ’60s: Are you a part of the problem or are you a part of the solution?
In these terms, It’s kind of an ethical problem that is thrown at all of us, don’t you think? As the Character Collaborative or Making Caring Common or the Common App move forward, how specifically and concretely can we help schools and colleges? You’ve alluded to some of this: specific ways to address serious concerns we have about the mental health of our young people.
Pope: What’s really fascinating is, I got Stanford to put on their website how much sleep a teenager needs, just even that little line. I don’t know how many people look at the Stanford website when they’re applying to college, but let’s be part of the solution, as you say, David, around mental health and wellbeing. Let’s really stress that we are test-optional and what that means and that you literally do not have to take a test to be admitted to the college.
Let’s take that off of your mental load right now. Let’s stress what we mean by course rigor and really help people understand that there are multiple paths to getting into your college. I think doing what you can every time you go and visit a high school, and make sure that all the regional reps out there are on point with messaging that health must come first, mental health and wellbeing and character. I think character is tricky. I have people say, “Well, I don’t know how to measure somebody’s soul.”
I had a college admissions person at Stanford who was a resident fellow living in the dorm, and this was a long time ago. I hope it doesn’t get me in trouble, and he said, “There’s two really jerky kids in my dorm. We should have taken two other kids with lower grades or lower test scores or different profiles.” We had no idea that these kids were such jerks, and he was frustrated that there’s two spots being taken up. With such demand and so many people to choose from, he said, ” We blew it. How can we get better at finding out who the kids are who really won’t squash the opportunities that the colleges offer?”
Holmes: I want to make sure we leave a time, Denise, for questions and comments but maybe I would just close with this question, The Collaborative, as you know, focuses on the importance of character strengths in admitting students to college. We also know from research that character attributes, such as resilience, grit, and service to others, correlate with mental health.
Give the importance of addressing mental health, do we have a role to play that you see as we move forward? Do you have any observations or comments about that?
Pope: Absolutely. I know that people are reading for resilience, they’re looking at perseverance. There is now the notion that we don’t have to look at all the different extracurricular activities and we can see a kid is taking care of four siblings and cooking dinner every night, or working to put money on the table, and is showing absolute resilience, perseverance, grit, et cetera. I love that we’re becoming much more aware of how to read much more diverse applications, and that goes to the holistic process. We look at who the kid is and what were their circumstances and what have they been able to accomplish.
It’s hard to find authenticity when you know that so much has gone into the packaging of the college application where the parents are paying a lot of money to have people read essays, review, and in some bad cases, write them completely. We need to find more and more ways to get at who is this kid and how can we authentically know this kid, whether it’s through regional reps, whether it’s through an interview process. Again, there’s pros and cons here and there’s a resource load issue but, really, it’s finding ways to get beyond that piece of paper to find out who the real person is behind it.
Holmes: I know you work with diverse populations at Challenge Success. One of the things that we believe, at least, I believe, is that focusing on personal attributes such as character should or has the potential to open doors of access to previously neglected populations. Have you done some work in that area or come to some conclusions about the things that we’re paying attention to and our ability to be fair and open and accessible?
Pope: That’s a great question. It’s hard. Again, it’s a resource question. How do you get to know the high schools that haven’t traditionally been sending students to you? How do you find the kids who are going to make good use of your scholarships and your financial aid? What I like to see are these partnerships where the individual college doesn’t have to do that.
For instance, the Posse Foundation or some of the other pipelines. USC has a really cool pipeline with some of the local high schools, so that you don’t have all the pressure on college admissions folks who are already so overloaded. Can you get partnerships with local communities, local organizations, nonprofits to help do that work for you and really give you a pool from which to choose so that you don’t have to go out and try to do this by yourself?
Holmes: Well, let me convey some questions that have come forward, Denise. Here’s one question. I understand why Stanford took out the why Stanford question, but one of the things that students hear from colleges is how important that question is. We hear it too in sessions that it counts as a 10. What do you do with colleges or what can do to talk colleges about this issue? I know from my own experience and talking to admissions people, they really want to know, when you’ve got a ton of excellent applicants, that a kid really wants to come to their place. I wonder if you could comment on that and address this question about dropping the “why.”
Pope: No, it’s a good question. I think what I was asking when I was talking to Rick about this, who is the Stanford Dean of Admissions, was how often are you using that to differentiate, or how different are those answers and how much are they just copying the website or saying just the pat answers. If you’re a school and you’re getting really good different answers and it’s a useful question, I would say keep it.
I think, again, many kids go to the website, see what’s up, “Oh, they have a special blah, blah, blah. I’ll put that into my essay.” It’s hard to tell whether that’s authentic or not. I’d rather they use other questions to get at “Would you be the right fit here?” What are the resources you’re looking for in a school?.
Pope: Here’s another question. What do you think would help students to understand that character matters — and who they are — when they are told it’s about the type of activities and the leadership list in high school that matters. It’s the record that gets into the application and then understanding the pieces that indicate character, right?
Pope: One is to literally say it. I don’t think we do enough messaging at the school level and on our websites to say we’re looking for “good” people without saying “good people.” List your characteristics: ethical, service-minded, et cetera. Where does that come out? Often, it comes out in the recommendation letters. That’s one thing that I would not want to get rid of.
I know that not all of them are great. There’s pressure on teachers. There are so many kids that you have to write letters for that colleges often get this generic letter, but the good ones put concrete evidence in. And I would ask, specifically, for some character traits and maybe even some ranking of character traits from those recommenders. I think you may get some better information that way.
Holmes: Let me ask you this. With Challenge Success, it sounds as if you have an interaction with the Stanford Admissions Office. Do you have a relationship with any other colleges and admissions offices? It just seems to me that the research you’ve done and the wisdom that you’ve accumulated is so valuable on the ground level for the rest of us. Or is that something that you haven’t been in a position to do, to extend your outreach. Is that something you’ve done or is that a possibility?
Pope: Well, we have presented at national conferences and other regional associations of college counselors and college administrators. We have Stanford just because I’m there and so Rick sometimes picks my brain, and believe me, it’s not as tight a relationship as you think. He doesn’t always listen to me. Every once in a while, like the “why Stanford” question and putting sleep on the website, those were big wins.
I would say we’re not doing specific outreach to specific colleges, although we are happy to present any of our data. You are welcome to go to the Challenge Success website at Challengesuccess.org, and you can see both the Challenge Success NBC study that talked about the post-COVID stress around college. That’s on our website. You can also see any of the data that I presented here today and learn more and read our college white paper.
The college white paper is really something that we pass around as much as we can. It debunks the myths around where you go to college and the rankings and all that. We rely heavily on the Gallup-Purdue poll that looks at thriving. The paper shows that thriving is not at all related to where you went to college, including community colleges. We have a lot of research presented in the white paper in a very understandable way for high school students and their parents to read. Those would be the resources that I would say both for colleges and for college counselors at the high school level that we tend to get out as widely as possible, and they’re free and open to anyone who wants them.
David: Well, one of the things I’d like to chat about is getting you at the table in the Character Collaborative and in our deliberations about holistic admission and the role of character. We need your perspective and insights. That’s a discussion for another day.
Denise, thanks so much for being here today. Now, let’s turn to some questions.
Bob Massa: Phil Ballinger posted a question. Phil, of course, is the retired head of enrollment at the University of Washington.
Holmes: I’ll read the question. Most students attend public high schools and then public institutions of higher education, some of which are highly selective at least in their states or regions. Are your comments, Denise, fully applicable to public educational settings and the demographics involved with them? If not, what would you recommend specifically for these educational settings? Something other than the most selective setting.
Pope: It’s so hard. I know the numbers. I’m a huge UW fan, by the way. It’s hard. Your numbers are so big and your resources are limited, and yet I still think there are ways to try and get at character and resilience and authenticity and, yes, everything that we said about stress. I should point out that, of the high schools that we survey, there is a percentage that has a much higher percentage of free and reduced lunch, many more kids going on to local public colleges, and the stress numbers are the same. They are as stressed about their future. They are as stressed about their workload. They are as sleep-deprived as kids from the more affluent high schools that we look at.
This is not just an Ivy League-going group. This is a group going to a wide variety of colleges and universities, and the stress is absolutely still there. I can tell you personally, the stresses are there to get into UW. It’s hard to get into UW and other big local schools. The trick for you is numbers management. You have so many applications. Do you want to look at — and I’m not saying this is the right way to go — but there is the University of Texas model of taking the top percentage from every single high school and then figuring out how to really make that work with such a heterogeneous group.
That’s one way that people have managed that. I’m sure there are other really good ways. I know I read that UW has the GPA cut-off, and then started to look at and do holistic admissions above the GPA cut-off. I could be wrong but I remember reading this at some point. There are ways to try and do a deeper dive and manage those numbers for these types of kids, and addressing stress is absolutely our goal.
Holmes: Someone asked, why don’t highly selective colleges expand and take more students creating more access? There was some conversation about this. I think Rice is working on such an initiative, but I am curious about whether is a movement here.
Pope: First of all, one thing is this, Stanford actually has expanded by a little tiny bit each year. I know some of the other Ivies have expanded a little tiny bit each year. We are residential colleges that absolutely need to have kids live on-campus, and so, we really just have a housing issue, never mind the cost of land and housing in Silicon Valley right now. That is one question.
Another would be, what kind of resources do we feel we can give with expansion versus non-expansion? Other people have suggested that you have regional versions. Stanford in Illinois, Stanford in Kentucky. Again, I don’t think that’s being considered. I don’t know what Stanford is thinking but I would guess, given what I’ve heard, that kind of thing is not on the table.
Instead, what we want to really convey is, you can get incredible high quality education at thousands of colleges and universities across the US, but the idea that the good ones are really scarce is really driving the behavior. That’s what we have to work against. That’s what we have to really change around messaging. This idea of status and that there’s only these certain good schools and all the other schools are bad — that’s the kind of messaging that we work really hard at Challenge Success to change.
Holmes: Denise, Lee Ellis has asked, how do you square seeking grit with balance? There’s a tendency to suggest lack of demonstrated grit indicates lack of drive. Any comments on that and grit?
Pope: Yes, I feel very strongly about this. I side with Alfie Kohn on this. The notion of grit has been taken out of context. At Stanford, we see kids who are just pushing, pushing, pushing, and at the high school level too to get that “A” because “GRIT, GRIT is great!” That does not jive with balance or with mental health.
Perseverance and resilience make a lot of sense, but this idea that you keep going no matter what, and you keep banging your head against the wall no matter what…to the point where you’re so stressed out and perfectionist-focused…that is not healthy. We do a lot of parent education and student education around finding balance. We have a pneumonic aid called “PDF,” which stands for playtime, downtime, family time. It turns out these are protective factors for kids. Everybody needs time to play, relax, get the sleep they need, and spend time with family, above and beyond getting their homework done and getting the grades.
Holmes: Now, I want to turn to Jim Bock at Swarthmore.
Jim Bock: Thank you, Denise, for this. This is wonderful, and I appreciate the advice and suggestions for colleges. My question comes from your thoughts on how high schools may also assist and is prompted by your comments about 10, 12 APs and whether you can cap that.
For example, the International Baccalaureate has six APs. I’m not promoting AP versus IB, but there are even public high schools that have both AP and IB, and we actually don’t look for that.
I lift that up in this year’s process. On our end, we might ask, “Counselor, please tell us, what was the rubric that you were using so that we can look at it equitably as possible?” The phrase, “most rigorous,” often has no AP cap to it because there are no caps in the high schools. I’m just curious if you thought about the high schools’ role in addition to the college’s role in the challenges we face.
Pope: Yes, thank you for that question, Jim. We absolutely spend most of our time working at the high school level. We have a white paper on advanced placement with lots of good literature. We are actually trying to get people to think about the purpose of Advanced Placement and IB. We definitely have kids who kill themselves to do both and we wonder why. You’re mixing and matching programs that really don’t go together, it’s the “more is better” mentality.
The one caveat I would say about capping APs is, in some high schools in this country, there are kids who absolutely need to take more APs because the level of rigor and challenge for them in the regular level classes is just not being met. I’m talking more about rural schools. I’m talking about some schools in and around cities that don’t have the resources. We don’t want to say, a one-size-fits-all model. We want to help each school look at what makes sense for them and to point out that a typical college student takes about four classes a year, that’s it.
Any kid who’s taking more than four APs at a time is actually doing more than a college student. That is not even similar to a college schedule because you’re going all day long in high school, you have way more courses that meet in a day. We do a lot of education around APs. I’m actually all for getting rid of APs for a whole host of reasons that we don’t have to go into right now, but you could read about this in our AP white paper.
We do think that a healthy schedule, a balanced schedule of APs and honors courses that you’re truly interested in — not that you’re just taking as a token to get into college — is a way to go. We don’t put a number on that, although it is under four in keeping with the idea that even college students don’t take more than that.
Holmes: Let me just say something with Jim Bock on the screen. You may know that Riverdale Country School on the high school level and Swarthmore College on the college level do a great job of providing transparency with regard to character and what they’re looking for. That’s a really, really important thing to do. Jim, you’ve been very much a part of this.
Now, to bring this wonderful session to a close. Denise, thank you so much. This has been very helpful and right on point in terms of all the things that we’re thinking and talking about. It’s great to have you as a part of this discussion. We’re very grateful.
G. How Assessment Played Out in Admission Offices
Moderator: Tom Bear, Vice President for Enrollment Management, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology
Tom Bear: Great, thanks so much, David and Denise. That was a great session. It was really insightful as we think about moving forward in the coming years, so I appreciate that conversation. I think the session is a great segue to the next part, our panel discussion. I’m really excited about this for our conference participants because I think this is where the rubber hits the road in terms of how things played out in the last year. This is going to be an opportunity to really think about what happened in each of the offices and then a chance for everyone to ask questions of those who are participating in today’s session.
To kick off, I’d like to do is ask each of our panelists to introduce themselves. To give you a sense, we have Whitney Soule, Vice Provost and Dean of Admission at UPenn, Jenna King, Associate Head of School for Admission and Enrollment at Riverdale Country School, Erby Mitchell, Dean of Admission and Financial Aid at the Hotchkiss School, and LeShane Saddler, Vice President for Enrollment Management at St. Ambrose University.
I’m going to start by asking our panelists to introduce themselves and explain a little bit about what unique perspective they bring to today’s conversation from last year’s experiences. Whitney, if you don’t mind, start by introducing yourself and, again, what’s that unique perspective that you bring to this conversation today?
Whitney Soule: Hi, everybody. I’m excited to see you because I’m sure I know a lot of you out there, Whitney Soule. I am Vice Provost and Dean of Admissions at the University of Pennsylvania. That is a new post for me. I started that role on July 1st. Before taking on this role at the University of Pennsylvania, I was the Senior Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Student Aid at Bowdoin College. I had been at Bowdoin College for 13 years and in that role for the last five years I was there.
I actually have the exposure of the small liberal arts experience in a school that had been the first to be test-optional. I’m a very grounded in the test-optional space. Now at Penn, where obviously I wasn’t with this group in their reading last year, but I’ve learned a lot with them since I got here in July about what that experience was like, and how they went about it, and what we see coming up this next year. Thank you for having me on the panel.
Jenna King: Hi, everyone. My name is Jenna King. As Tom said, I’m the Associate Head of School for Admission and Enrollment at Riverdale Country School, pre-K through 12th grade. A school of about 1200 students in the Bronx in New York. This is my 18th year at the school. I oversee admissions, but I also have the opportunity to serve as one of the leaders of our advisor program in the upper school.
I think about character in many different respects: on the admissions side of things; educating families about character and how we consider that in the application process in a holistic admission setting; and also in terms of how we help to foster character in our students.
I want to thank Denise for her comments just now because I think they were really relevant. I was writing down so many things and am so excited by some of the ideas that she shared, and some of them that we’re able to, not at a collegiate level when our applicant pools are smaller than some of yours out there. I think there are a lot of great ideas. I’m happy to talk a little bit later about some of the changes that we’ve made over a number of years.
I should also say I am a member of the board of the Enrollment Management Association, which was involved in developing the Character Skills Snapshot, which I’m sure I’ll mention a little bit later. I’m also fortunate to be on the board of the Character Collaborative. Thank you for including me today, Tom. I look forward to this discussion.
Erby Mitchell: Hello, everyone. My name is Erby Mitchell, Dean of Admission and Financial Aid here at the Hotchkiss School. I want to begin by saying, I don’t know how I ended up on this august panel, but I’m happy to be here to learn. I’m excited about this conversation. I guess I look at this through multiple lenses. First, I would say as a parent who had a son go through the college process at the height of the pandemic, I see it from that perspective.
Then also as Dean of Admission. I would say that it’s fair to say that Hotchkiss has had testing as a central component in its evaluation of students for a very long time. At the height of the pandemic, having to take a step back and think about how we were going to assess students whose testing was absent. And also where other components of the process were absent that they couldn’t submit, which was really an interesting and fun experience. I’m looking forward to talking more about that today.
I also feel grateful to serve on the Character Collaborative board, and also working with Gateway to Prep Schools as the President with my friend and colleague, Jill Thompson at Andover, who’s the vice president. At Gateway these issues come to bear every single week in our board conversations. I’m looking forward to adding as much as I can and learning in this conversation. Thank you.
LeShane Saddler: Hi all. Thanks, Tom, for having me on this panel. Again, just excited to be here. Again, my name is LeShane Saddler. I’m the VP of Enrollment at St. Ambrose University, a small private Catholic institution in the quad city of Davenport, Iowa. I’ve now have been in this role for three months, so excited to be here. Iowa is my home state.
Prior to my role here at the St. Ambrose University, I was the Director of Admissions at the University of California, San Diego. As you may have heard yesterday from Fionna at UCLA, they have the largest application pool in the country. UC San Diego has the second-largest first-year application pool in the country last year receiving over 140,000 first-year applications.
I served there for three years and had a wonderful experience at this large public institution because prior to that I had served for 10 years at the University of Notre Dame, where I had the opportunity to work with Dr. Bear. This was one of two pleasures, professionally — working with someone that is passionate about the character of a student and working with the student body at the institution.
I served at the University of Notre Dame for 10 years, South Bend, Indiana, as the Associate Director of Undergraduate Admissions. I think the unique perspective that I believe I bring to this conversation today is that I’ve been at multiple universities that have either been highly selective as a private institution or selective as a large public. I know the inner workings of how those institutions behave and how they review an app and try to better best understand students who are interested in and apply to the institution.
I will say, lastly, prior to higher ed, I was a high school teacher for 13 years. I know that side of the lane too and, coming from our last presenter, I won’t say mistrust, but the anxiety that comes with students applying to college. Whether that’s a highly selective public or private or just the unknown of what’s going to happen after I graduate from high school. Again, happy to be here today and looking forward to the conversation.
Bear: What LeShane will not say is he also played Division I football for a coach by the name of Lou Holtz, who also pushed character at the highest level too. Great background. I hope you noticed, and this is really good, is we have two secondary and two post-secondary participants in this conversation, which I think will really bring a very robust dialogue.
Again, I’m going to ask each of our panelists to speak about five to seven minutes. I’ve asked them to think about the past year. I posed some questions to them to frame this, about how did their assessment process compare this year to previous years.
Did their offices employ new strategies or face different challenges from past admissions cycles? Do their schools identify or did they encounter any different outcomes? This could be measured or anecdotal from previous years in the admission cycles. Have they spent any time being reflective, doing any analysis of their offers of admission this year compared to past years? Then I think what’s most important is what lessons or practices will now be carried forward from their learned knowledge based on this last year?
Remember, Q&A is out there. Please post your questions. Then we should have some time at the end to tackle those questions that you have. Whitney, I’m going to turn this back over to you. Thanks for kicking us off.
Soule: Great. Happy to do so. As I said, I was not with Penn during their admission cycle last year, but there is a lot of reflection going on with one of the latter questions that Tom just posed. I’ve been involved with a lot of that reflection.
As you probably know, many institutions who had not previously been test-optional, moved to a test-optional space last year. That’s probably one of the most pressured areas of conversation that we’re in right now because of the external impressions, the curiosity and expectation for information, and results that prove a thing. Then also what it means within the admission office in terms of selection, and also what that did to the application volume in general.
As an example, the University of Pennsylvania had already tremendous application growth over the years as many colleges and universities had experienced. Penn, along with them, was in the application range of just over 30,000 applications for a class of 2,400 that feeds for different schools. If you didn’t know, at the University of Pennsylvania, there are undergraduate classes in the College of Arts and Sciences, the engineering school, the business school, and also in nursing. The applicant pool is serving the undergraduate population in these four places.
Last year, not all but many schools, especially the very selective ones, saw a tremendous application increases, partly inspired we think by the test-optional position that we were in where students were thinking aspirational, “Why not?” They thought, “Maybe without testing, I have a chance.” That pushed our application volume from below 30,000 into 56,000 last year. You can imagine the pressure that puts on decision-makers at the time when testing had been, historically, a component that was required and was part of everybody’s application and a part of the review.
To not have that available for everybody and to have that team pivot, they did the work in advance to decide what would they lean on in the absence of testing and how would they try to shape those conversations. There was preparation for that, but then there was also having to do it in real-time and to do it along with members from each of those four schools who helped advise in the committee process. That was a lot of learning as they were going. It was a lot of leaning on what schools were willing to provide around, “This is how we’re operating this year, this is what’s available to students, this is the experience they’re having, this is what our grading system is this year.”
Also, what students were able to tell us around their experiences. I think the response and the way that the team adapted was in many ways realizing that those were the core areas of decision-making to begin with. Testing was a component in the past, but it wasn’t the thing that drove the decision process. That really revealed itself to the staff last year when they were working on so many applications without testing. I would say the staff doesn’t feel like they made entirely different decisions. The class came in the way that they had hoped and was more diverse than it had been before by a number of different measures.
I think, as well, just to reflect on what are we taking forward and a little bit of what I got from listening in the end of the last session is, I think we need to do a better job, particularly as highly selective institutions. I’ll take this on as a responsibility for Penn. We need to do a better job around people understanding how the class that got chosen got to be that class. I think the narrative is, they are the best of the best. We have found a way to raise the bar higher and higher and higher. This group of students that we admitted are the ones that got over the bar.
You can’t see my hands on the screen, but many more students than we admitted are well over the bar of admission. Who gets admitted from within that space are not “the best of the best.” They’re the group that we admitted from the best which was huge. The best is not always who had the most APs, who had the most leadership in a measurable way by a title.
It was responding to the individuals on the question of character in that review and in the way cases are moved forward. It has to do with who that student is, how they’re revealing their characteristics in decision-making, problem-solving, care and concern for others, and so forth. I’ll stop there because I could talk the whole time, and I know that the other panelists have really, really good things to offer, but I’m happy to answer questions when it comes to that. Thank you.
Bear: Great. Thanks, Whitney. Jenna.
King: I’m going to pick up on some of the strands that Whitney just started with. I’ll say that with school only having been in session for a month or so now, we have not done a lot of analysis yet on how our new students have done. Of course, we’ve gotten the preliminary check, but I also feel that checking in on students two to three weeks after they’ve gotten here is antithetical to the messages that we give about growth over time. I think that reflection on what we did last year and on the students to whom we offered admission will be ongoing and something that we continue to look at, not just over the course of the rest of this year, but taking us forward.
Just picking up a couple of strands, we are a school that did retain standardized admission testing. It was not test-optional at Riverdale this year. That’s not for all entry points, but for fifth grade and above. For kindergarten, we did require some testing. It’s not standard for kindergarten, but it is for 5th through 12th grade. I did spend a lot more time educating people about why we did that last year, and really, frankly, the reason that we did it is not necessarily because we’re huge proponents of standardized testing, but what we were finding is that a lot of our peer schools were creating their own school testing in place of a standardized test.
I think my philosophy is that we want to make the admissions process as accessible as possible to families and students. I didn’t want to have them needing to do additional things just for the purposes of applying to our school. What did shift is that we did a lot more education about the role that testing plays in admissions at our school. We don’t use it as a bar or a cutoff. It’s simply part of the larger process, which I’ll say more about in a second. The other thing I think that really happened last year, and was a good thing, was making the process more accessible to families in general through both our recruitment and open house events and interviews and revisit opportunities.
I think it was great to be able to shift that to an online model. Frankly, people are talking about how they miss having students in front of them in their offices for interviews, but I really think that we’ve made the process better for families. I think there will be some of this online that we retain moving forward. To Whitney’s point, I do feel like there was more talk last year about admitted versus admissible, but we really try to help people understand that many more of them are admissible than will be admitted. I think it’s really important for us, back to some of what Denise shared earlier, is to help families understand who we are as a school and what we’re looking for, and what kind of student fits here.
I would say some of these changes are things that we’ve done in recent years and not just this past year, but I think it’s important to just speak to them because I think they coincide with our decision to retain testing. In our open-house messaging, we’ve distilled what we do and what we’re looking for basically to three ideas; curiosity, purpose, and belonging. We talk to families about how those things are important at our school. We then talk to them about how they relate to what we’re looking for in all of our applicants, whether they’re applying to pre-K or ninth grade. I think that’s been a really important thing to just be very clear and concise about that.
We don’t just talk about the overall information about the school. We speak to those factors. I would say an additional thing that we did last year is we made standard all of our interview questions, I’ll say quickly, we do interview every student who applies. Again, I’m not having the numbers that you heard about at UCSD or UCLA. This is important to know in terms of context. We use structured interview questions. This was an idea that I got from speaking with Whitney in the past and with our colleague, Nathan Kuncel, at the University of Minnesota — really trying to have the same questions that are asked of every student who’s interviewing.
We use those questions for two reasons. One, it is to educate families and students about our school priorities. We start each of those questions with a little bit of, “This is what matters at our school,” and then ask them a question that relates to that. Most of them are not just about, “Well, tell me about your achievements.” We ask them about things that they’re proud of. We ask them about things where they’ve made an impact. We have targeted questions that ask them to tell us specific stories.
Several years back, we also decided that we were missing a couple of things through the one-on-one interviews with students, and we weren’t having enough of an opportunity to emphasize the collaborative learning that’s so critical at our school. We engaged in a design thinking process with our faculty to determine what factors they felt were most important in our applicants. We then designed part of the admissions process to hit on those things that they felt were most important, things like teamwork and collaboration. We built a group interview that’s a required part of our key entry point processes, and the students come together collaboratively to engage in a design challenge.
This is something that I think has been a very helpful part of our process. It was hard to translate it to Zoom last year, but we did it. We’re constantly thinking about new ways that we can do that so that it’s new and different every year, but that has been a super valuable part.
Channeling my own alma mater, Dartmouth, we had a peer recommendation for our applicants to ninth grade last year. It wasn’t rating your peers, but it was telling us a story that really gives us a sense of your peer. We did this because we were afraid that there were going to be applicants in our pool, not the ones coming from our typical feeder schools where we get pages and pages of narrative, but the ones who didn’t have that voice in our process.
We felt having a peer could give us another story that sheds some light on the student and their character. It was super helpful. We heard from siblings, camp friends, cousins, neighbors, really the gamut, but it helped us to get an insight into students. Channeling something that Denise spoke to earlier, we changed our recommendation question so that it’s not just, “Why is this student a good fit for my I school?” We added a question about what is the best learning environment for this student. The teachers could reflect on that, and then that would help us, knowing our own environment, determine the fit.
Lastly, this was not new last year, but Riverdale continued with the Character Skills Snapshot, which is a character assessment developed by the Enrollment Management Association. We’ve been using it for several years at Riverdale. I think, if nothing else, it sends a message to families that we are not just looking at your academic test scores, but we do care about who you are as a person. I think it’s also been used as a message to families and students that character is malleable and can be shifted. It’s not just a yes or no kind of a thing, it’s that we know who you are.
I think that’s been really important to families to help them see that our goal in the enrollment process, in the admission process, is not just to determine if someone’s admissible to our school or will be admitted to our school, but we also want to know who’s coming in. I think, when you see it that way, you can educate families that part of your admission process is to know who you’re going to have in your community, I think they can start to see that’s why we’re asking about character, that’s why we’re looking for all of these different pieces.
My next project I’m really excited about is to think about a student profile that we can build over time so that we can help students see how these things evolve and change during their time with us. And hopefully this can be something that we share with colleges as our students apply out of here. We’re not there yet. The project for this year is to analyze and reflect on who we admitted this year and think about how we can continue to show change over time. I hope that gets at the questions you were looking for Tom, and I’ll pass it off to Erby.
Mitchell: Thanks, Jenna. I failed to mention, at the start of the call, that I feel really fortunate to have had experience working at Bowdoin College. I was there for seven years. Whitney, I think you’ll appreciate this, that if there are two things that I learned during my time at Bowdoin, it was that I should anticipate the suspicion with which people respond around test optionality and second, that I better collect a lot of data. That was my approach in this past admission cycle and was how were we going to convince families that we meant it when we said that we were interested in test optionality. How would we talk to families who said, “My kid tested well, should they provide a test score?”
I stole directly from Jeff Selingo saying that, “Look, if you did test and you tested well, and you feel like it will further dimension your application, feel free to submit your testing.” We’re going take the secrecy out of it. Yesterday, someone talked about authenticity and transparency, and that’s been the thrust of our work in this past admission cycle. I’ll tell you, as Whitney noted, we saw a 14% increase in applications at Hotchkiss, a highly selective place. 55% of our applicants submitted testing compared to 45% who did not. We found it interesting that, when we got to the end of the process and looked at the data, our admit rates for submitters and non-submitters were virtually the same. Approximately 13%.
We felt really good communicating to families in this next cycle what it means when we say we are test-optional. It really is your choice. One of the best decisions we made a couple of years ago.
I would encourage people who have questions about how we are thinking about character and our processes to reach out to my good colleague, Jackson Marvel. We have a dean director model in our office. A couple of years ago, Jackson Marvel said to me — he was our director of financial aid — “I’ve been doing financial aid for a long time, I love the work, but I want to expand myself professionally.”
We moved him out of financial aid and now have him overseeing analytics in our office. I get these incredible reports weekly from Jackson about the decisions that we made in last year’s admission cycle: “Here are some things that we know.” For example, we measure initiative and empathy. Working with Nathan Kuncel, we’ve developed a character matrix that we’re working on, again, taking that directly from Whitney during her time at Bowdoin. We were pleased to see that the initiative ratings for both submitters and non-submitters for initiative and empathy were virtually the same.
The same is true with the interview ratings. The only real difference in terms of performance metrics was around the academic rating of submitters and non-submitters. Interestingly, the academic ratings were higher for non-submitters than they were for submitters of test scores. We’re mining the data, and trying to make sense of it. We’re only six weeks into the academic year, so we don’t yet know how our first-year students, or our ninth-graders, are performing just yet. We’ll know that soon. Let me just tell you some of the ways we’re thinking about moving forward.
We’re going to continue to work with Nathan Kuncel to think about other character attributes that we want to evaluate in our process. We’re doing that work in the interview process as well as in the application.
One of the questions that surfaced for me, as dean of admission, in this process is we’ve been spending a great deal of time talking about test optionality, but I was amazed at how many students showed up in our process and struggled with meeting just the standard requirements to complete the application. We had to be really flexible and nimble when a student came to us and said, “You require an English and math teacher recommendation, but I haven’t been in person with my English or math teacher for the entire year. They don’t know me. I don’t know them, I’m on Zoom. I feel really uncomfortable asking these people to write on my behalf.” The underlying question I have now from my office and secondary schools is, why don’t we allow students to have more choice in terms of who is writing on their behalf. I want us to begin thinking about that.
The common refrain from colleagues is, “Well, we require a math recommendation because it’s helpful to the math department chair in doing math placement. I want us to push back on that a little bit and understand whether or not that’s actually a fact, or if we’ve just simply been doing this for 129 years. I think we need to reevaluate that.
The second thing we’re thinking about: we launched for the first time our inaugural Bridge program, and that was really accelerated by the pandemic. It wasn’t necessarily just about test optionality. We were concerned about the impact of the disruption of the pandemic on the educational experiences and outcomes of young people applying to our school and their transition here at Hotchkiss.
We launched a two-week-long bridge program. We offered it to 40 students, and 31 said yes. It was a diverse range of students. We had five principles that we followed to identify appropriate students for the bridge programs. First, we wanted to make sure that students understood that this was not about remediation. We were looking for students of promise. We were looking for students with wide range in geographic diversity. We were focused on math aptitude, family dynamic. We looked at students who we thought would really benefit from social-emotional programming over the two-week period.
We shipped out laptops to students two weeks in advance of the program so that they could do simple things like learn how to use Canvas to access their academic program online. They got to meet members of our faculty, current students, and alumni. The transition for those young people, despite the pandemic, I think was far better than it might have been if they were arriving on campus for the very first time. Most of those students had no visibility to Hotchkiss prior to the launch of the bridge program.
I’ll end by saying that we have a colleague in the Spanish department who’s pursuing an advanced degree at Columbia’s Teachers College. As part of a practicum, she has to do a research project. We just had her agree to do research on our Bridge program students as part of her practicum. We’ll have a white paper developed by the end of the school year on the outcomes of students who participated in our bridge program. Hopefully, Tom, that answers some of your questions, and I am looking forward to hear what other people have to say.
Bear: That was great. LeShane.
Saddler:. What I’m going to try to do is tackle the three questions that Tom posed earlier with nuggets for each one. The first question was comparing this year to previous years. I will speak primarily about my experience at UC San Diego as I was part of that system there for the last three cycles, when we went from the first two cycles where we utilized test scores in the admissions process until our last cycle. Last year was the first year that we did not just go test-optional, we went completely test-blind.
Not only were we test-blind, but as you may know, in California, they’re called Prop 209s, where you’re also prohibited from using race in the review. Not looking for sympathy or empathy here, but just thinking about the challenges in a system where you have 140,000 applications, how do you work through that with a limited number of staff? More applications, same timeframe in which those applications had to be reviewed and evaluated. We didn’t get an extra month. We didn’t get an extra five weeks to review the applications. We had the same timeframe in which we had to review applications, select the students, and then send out notifications.
There was a lot of pressure on the team. I want folks who are listening to really think about this We know that there’s pressure on students, we know that the pandemic has changed the world, but there’s pressures on institutions as well and pressures on admissions teams that are responsible for reviewing applications with no additional time. One of the things that we did — it’s costly — but we hired more external readers.
You may know that in institutions, not only are the admissions folks reading the applications, but many institutions employ external readers, primarily retired counselors, high school counselors, high school teachers, or former admissions counselors at other institutions to help and assist in reading and evaluating the students. We hired more, but in hiring more, that means you have to train more and more readers. And imagine this: when we would have a smaller group of external readers, we would always have all those readers come to campus. Now they couldn’t come to campus because there were travel bans. How do you now virtually train people, virtually get the forms filled out?
There was a lot of challenges in that process for our institution last year. We made it through it and got the decisions out on time, and got the students excited about coming to the institution. On the next question about different outcomes and reflective analysis, I think the most important thing here — for those that have the power and the ability and have these people part of your institution — is the institutional research team.
You work with your institutional research team to do that really big data dive into understanding what it was prior to the test-optional or test-blind. What factors outside of test scores were identifiers that determine the best-fit students for your institution. We were fortunate that we looked at test-optional or test-blind prior to it actually having been instituted in California. The summer prior, we started working with our institutional research team to really look at how we would assess and evaluate students minus the test scores being part of our process. Working with institutional research gave us an opportunity to be ahead of the game a little bit, but you still had to do the work.
It was still new for everyone because you can imagine that folks in admissions have been reading files and reading applications with test scores for decades, and then to have that factor — the huge piece of the admissions decision process — being no longer part of it. It creates some challenges. The institutional research team helped us understand other things that could be really important contributors to whether or not a student is a best fit for the institution. I think you also have to have really honest conversations when you dive into that data and start to look at how those students will perform once they arrive on your campus.
The current institution has actually been test-blind and test-optional for the last two cycles. What you have to do — when I say honest reflection — is really prepare your campus for some gaps. Some gaps that may be due to the pandemic where students have been learning online for a couple of years and may not come in with the historical background that they have when it comes to math and science and in some of their other important, clearly academic prep work. Is your campus prepared to educate students that have not been in the classroom consistently over the last year or year and a half?
If you’re not prepared, get prepared, because students are going to come not only with some academic defaults, not because of their own doing, but because of the situation. And also coming in with some social anxieties as well. Mental health is an extremely, extremely important piece of all of this. We’re talking about character and collaboration and making sure that our students are academically prepared for institutions, but are they emotionally and socially prepared? Are you prepared to work with students who are going to be coming with some things that are unique to this generation?
Lessons and best practices to carry forward. Very important. What we instituted was bias training, bias training at all three levels, at different points of our admission cycle. We needed to have a clear understanding that we all clearly come to the table with bias. If you don’t believe that, then you need bias training. We wanted to make sure that prior to our recruitment cycle — with virtual recruiting because we were not allowed to travel — we knew what kind of biases might be best understood about ourselves.
Traditionally, students will be able to visit campus, and we would be able to see the schools or the high schools where these students were coming from. But now, the engagement of those students was not quite there due to some gaps in technology. Not every student that comes, whether the first generation or fifth generation college-going students, has Wi-Fi accessibility, and this is an issue. I think we learned that clearly in this process.
Bias training prior to file reading and understanding, as you look at a student’s file, that even though you might not know the student’s ethnicity, you understand things when you look at the school. I’ll pick on my old high school, which was on one side of the track where everybody says, “Don’t go over there.” Now, looking at that school and saying, “Hey, that school produces some good students, but traditionally, they don’t have a great high school going rate.” Understanding the biases that come in to your mind as you start to read applications.
Beyond our reader training and the bias training, as we move forward in this process, and as an institution moves forward, looking at those traditional things that you would see, such as extracurricular involvement. But beyond extracurricular involvement and beyond academic preparation, understanding the environmental context of the applications or the applicants. This is something we’ve talked about for the last several years and when I was at the University of Notre Dame. We were one of the initial institutions that started using the environmental context tool provided by the College Board.
Many more institutions are now on board to utilize that tool because, and I believe in it, it gives you a greater and broader context of the student and understanding of some of the factors that play and will continue to play in their lives as they navigate to your institutions or to the institution.
The last thing I’ll say is for high schools that are out there listening, beef up your school profile, beef up your school profile. Your school profile is important, very important, and an integral piece for readers as they holistically review your students. What are the opportunities that exist or don’t exist?
You don’t want people guessing, “Well, this kid isn’t involved in all these activities and this other kid is involved in four sports and band and all this different stuff.” If the high school profile does not help institutions understand your student and where student opportunities or lack of opportunities exist, you’re really not helping the student in the process at all. I’ll stop there and turn it back over to Dr. Bear.
Bear: Thanks for sharing. Great comments from everybody. I have a full page of notes. I know, Whitney, you wanted to follow up on something that Erby was talking about and, while you’re doing that, I want to encourage people who have questions to start putting those in so we can tackle them as a panel.
Soule: Thank you very much. Erby, in talking about the flexibility around students who felt they couldn’t meet the recommendation requirements adequately and thinking about that going forward, this reminded me that one of the things that Penn is doing this year that is different from years before. We have changed the recommendation requirement for the application cycle going forward. For Penn, it used to be a counselor recommendation and two teacher recommendations. Those were expected to be from what we would consider core academic areas.
One of the things that we think is really important is knowing, even pre-pandemic, that there are a lot of students in high school environments who really don’t know their teachers very well and vice versa. Those students would meet the requirement. They would get the recommendations in. But they would talk to a teacher who would say, “Sure, tell me about yourself.” The student would tell the teacher about themselves, and the teacher would write about that and give it back. It wasn’t really offering a teacher insight into the student, which is what the purpose of those recommendations were.
Of course, you can imagine there were a lot of students who were in schools where the teachers know them really well and do a great job with those recommendations. One of the things that we’ve changed is a matter of equity and is even more important now since students had really different relationships with teachers last year. We allow that third recommendation to be from an adult who can speak about the student.
One of the things we knew was really important were things like decision-making, problem-solving, care and concern for others, motivation, that sort of thing. Asking an adult who could speak to that doesn’t have to be a teacher. It could be a teacher if someone wanted to use that recommendation opportunity for the teacher view, but it could also be a job supervisor; it could be a club leader, it could be the student’s best friend’s mother. It shouldn’t be a family member. Erby, I wanted to say that while you were on the panel because you gave me a reason to say it to everybody.
Bear: Great. One of the things that came to the top of my mind as I listened to each of you speak is in the fact that, for years, as we’ve worked in the admissions process historically, we haven’t seen much change. Things have been pretty stagnant for years. I’ve been doing college admissions since 1989. For all those years, it was co-curricula and take that rigorous coursework. That’s something I have said over and over and over and over, and I was reminded in prior session the impact that has on people.
I think about being here at Rose-Hulman which is a STEM institution and how much emphasis we’ve put on core preparation. That’s what my staff has been trained on for years to think about: “Let’s make sure students are prepared to take on the rigor.” Last year, we fully accepted this holistic admission. All of a sudden, I had a whole team now thinking in a different way. Each of you have done a great job talking from a leadership perspective, the leader of your unit.
Thinking back a little bit and coming what I think has been a very static world in terms of admission and selection, how has your staff, how have they individually responded to a big state of disruption? COVID was a big impact on that. The push for holistic admission. Have you seen experiences or changes in ways that your staff have embraced, not embraced, or encountered this new world that we’re working at right now? Erby, I love your look. You’re definitely off into a deep thought process.
Mitchell: Your question reminded me of a moment in my young life when I was a young admission officer at Bowdoin. Dean Jim Miller would say to me at the time — and I could be quite animated in committee meetings — “You get one outburst today, just one.” I offer that to say that I think for my team, the conversations around the table have been richer, and there’s been far more healthy dissonance around how we engage and disagreement about which students should be admitted and which factors we should consider. That’s been really healthy.
I think the push of that has been good professionally for people, and how we advocate has changed. If a student is showing up and they’re strong students with some gaps, I think we’re more willing to make the phone call and engage in the conversation with the placement director or, if the school doesn’t have a placement director, get every single teacher on a conference call and let’s have the talk about whether or not this student can make the transition successfully to Hotchkiss. That’s been a joy quite frankly.
Saddler: I’ll second that. I think the thing that’s really interesting about admissions folks, prior to this pandemic, you had really what I would consider worker bees. I’m home of the Fighting Bees, the only Fighting Bees in the country, Saint Ambrose. But we had admissions officers that were really worker bees. This new situation has caused those worker bees to be really critical thinkers and not just doers, to think about why and how the process has not only impacted their lives but impacted students, impacted staff, impacted high school counselors, impacted the world really and beyond.
For me, I concentrate primarily on domestic students, but in California, we did a lot of, I would say, great work with international students. And thinking globally how this pandemic has really changed the work in so many different ways. If you want to try to pull a positive out of this, it’s changed the thought process for admissions offices. In the test-blind, test-optional world, this is really is a nice change-up for this work because there’s so many more ways to evaluate and look at students than just simply relying on test scores and GPA.
Bear: We have someone with their hand up. Shalin, we’re promoting you to panelist now.
Shalin Shah: Thank you so much. Great discussion everybody. This is a really, really awesome panel. I represent a startup that develops character assessments, and I have a two-part question. Jenna, I know you’ve been involved with a lot of character assessment developments and all. Maybe we’ll start with you and then we’ll flip to the panel.
One, does everybody on the panel believe that implementing character assessments in the admissions process will eventually lead to increased transparency and building more trust with the general public and parents? The second part is, if you do believe that, what do you think the main hurdle is in piloting such programs at both highly selective programs and non-selective programs? I note that universities tend to be the only area where character assessments are not being piloted or not being used.
King: I’m happy to kick that off. Thank you for the question. I think it’s a tough question, it’s hard to answer. Frankly, for us we’ve never used standardized, intellectual, academic, whatever testing to rule kids out in our process. Again, I say that coming from the context of only dealing with 2,000-plus applications versus 140,000-plus applications. I think for us, there’s needed to be a lot of education with parents, families, and students about why we’re including a character assessment as part of our process. They don’t necessarily understand what it is. I’ve had people say, “Oh, yes, I’ve got to do the personality test.”
This is not like a magazine quiz where you find out what spirit animal you have. This is meant to be something a lot more serious than that. When we were developing the tool with EMA, and I’m part of a large group that did that, it certainly was not just me or just EMA. There were representatives from a lot of different schools involved, and we had a huge discussion around the word “assessment.” It initially came out as the Character Skills Assessment. We shifted away from that because we didn’t want families or schools or anybody to misinterpret the point of the thing. It’s not to say, “Yes, you have character,” Or, “Yes, you have resilience,” Or, “No, you don’t.”
It’s meant to be a “snapshot.” That’s really why EMA went with that word because it’s where you are in time. I still don’t feel I will ever be in a place where I will rule out an application based on a character assessment. I just don’t feel like that’s the right thing to do. What it can help to do is triangulate what we’re seeing in other places within the application.
Like I said before, I think it can help prepare for welcoming that student to our community, thinking about how we can place them with an advisor or in classes, and thinking about how we might need to support them once they’re in our community. I think educating schools, admission professionals, families, and students around that is probably critical. I don’t know that it’ll take off entirely on its own. I think, if we can use it not just as a sorting tool but as a way to gather more information, it can have more legs.
Shah: My company’s tool and EMA’s tool are pretty similar. The only difference being we actually compare, not only just the absolute assessment, we compare students to others and do a standard deviation to be a little bit more comparative. It’s like a next-generation, but a lot of kudos to you, you and EMA for really building the foundation for the research and development.
Saddler: I’ll just jump in. I hate to answer a question with a question. I’d love to learn a little bit more about what you all do. The question, does the assessment work both ways? We talk a lot about evaluating students on character, but do you do a character assessment of the institution? Are institutions responsible for certain claims/ You can go to websites of every institution, high school, college, you name it, and they’re going to be wonderful things that the institution has said about itself. But is there a tool that institutions should be able to complete and where you can assess the institution on its character?
It’s a good match. The student may say, “Well, what I see are my strengths because I’m assessing myself through this character evaluation. I see the school that’s also done the same thing, and this is a really good match.” Also, not every kid wants to go to a faith-based institution that’s going to talk about service and commitment to service.
Shah: LeShane, to answer your question, yes, we do. We actually provide schools with metadata on the 10 character attributes or character skills that we measure. Schools get not only how do they compare but how do they compare against other schools. The schools can choose whether to publish that data or not. It’s still in beta. The shameless plug is we need a lot more schools to pilot the program with us to be able to get a substantial amount of data and substantial differentiation with universities for us to make a meaningful impact. Right now, we have about 2 or 3, we would like to get to up to 10 pilots so that we can provide more colorful data.
Bear: Great. Thank you. One last question before we move on. I think, everyone has hit on this topic just a little bit: “How are you messaging to your audiences right now about more holistic admission? I know we’ve felt the response from our audiences but I wonder if there’s been some proactive steps taken by each of the institutions in terms of signaling what you’re looking for, how you’re changing, and how you’re moving forward.” Whitney, it looks like you’re ready to go on that one.
Soule: I think what we’re doing is a real review of what our messaging currently says and if it reflects what we think we’re trying to say. As I was saying earlier, the admission office is serving four different schools. Each of those schools has a unique way of trying to show what they are and what they offer. We’re the common denominator in messaging for all of them, in terms of the personality of the university at large. And then understanding the unique differences between schools. We’re trying to think about how to be clear around what’s expected in the application that is critical.
For the different schools at Penn, there might be different things in curricular requirements while also trying to message that there is consideration and flexibility here. If you say you always have to have calculus or you can’t move forward, that’s more like “usually.” But sometimes, we might be able to work around that and try to do it in a way that is real for a student to hear.
We don’t need every student who hasn’t yet made it to calculus to think that they could maybe be the exception in one of the programs that really requires having had calculus as a starting point. Yet, you also want to make sure that students aren’t pulling themselves out of a potential opportunity because they’re deciding for themselves that we wouldn’t look at them. That’s really hard messaging to give to students. It can feel really vague.
What I’m sharing is it’s not as easy as saying, “Oh, well, if we just say this, we’ll solve the problem.” When we’re reading contextually, which is what is at the basis of holistic admission, then the context can allow some flexibility in certain situations that are unique to that individual and their context. Trying to convey that without saying anything goes for anybody who is threading a needle. I think we work really hard at trying to be clear and real without being discouraging.
Bear: Great. I want to thank each of the panel members. I have really enjoyed the conversation. There’s a palpable change that’s happening to our industry in terms of how we look at the student, how we encourage them to go through the process in what they present, and then how we act on that. There are so many new ideas.
I want to think about how we embrace these changes at a STEM institution like Rose-Hulman. I think it’s going to be fascinating and fun doing that collectively. How do we get our team involved and how do we get our families and students who are looking at us to be involved in the process too? I think this is an important consideration.
H. Refining a New Selection Paradigm: Summary of Workshops. David Holmes
First, thanks to our small group facilitators: Steve Bristol, Florence Hines, Sarah Honan, Fran Swift, Tim Weir, Betsy Woolf and Jill Thompson.
The workshops discussed two dimensions pertaining to holistic admission : (1) changes in the admission process during the 2020-2021 academic year and (2) changes built into the admission process for 2021-2022 or recommended for the long-term future. As reported in the workshops, here are some changes that occurred over the past year:
— Approximately 55% of applicants nationally did not submit standardized test scores. — Students tended to “apply up” with the widely expanded test-optional situation. — Some colleges invited experts on test-optional admission to consult with them on adapting to the new situation. — With increased emphasis on character attributes in admission, colleges developed rating scales for character. — Absent interviews, some colleges invited an additional recommendation letter. — There was an increase in staff training among colleges. — With universal implementation of Zoom communication, students from geographically distant rural schools benefited by virtual outreach by colleges. — Colleges relied more on services, such as Landscape, that provide information about school and family environments.
Here are changes that are likely to shape the future:
— Holistic admission, including the changes identified above, is here to stay. — Many admission offices will provide acceptance letters that communicate to the accepted applicant what the college saw as their distinctive attributes (e.g., quote from the students essay). — Colleges will work hard to ensure that potential applicants set foot on campus. — With increased levels of stress among students, schools and colleges will help students “thrive” vs. simply “survive.” — Employing avenues of virtual communication (e.g., Zoom), colleges will elevate efforts to provide support and professional development to over-burdened college counselors, especially at public schools. — Colleges will continue efforts to open doors of opportunity for students from disadvantaged situations.
I. What Next Bob Massa and David Holmes
Looking ahead, the greatest need in admission is to elevate, improve and institutionalize best practices of holistic admission.
Toward this end, this annual meeting of the Character Collaborative highlighted promising directions, including the following:
- strategies for valid and consistent assessment of character
- creative ways to connect to students, families and schools
- avenues for increased transparency in college admission, particularly in the implementation of a “holistic” process
- new ways to support the mental health of students
The Character Collaborative will reinforce and support these priorities through strategic partnerships (e.g., with NACAC), a series of online courses, podcasts, regular commentary via writing and speaking, and the growth of the Collaborative network of colleges, schools, counselors, researchers, innovative projects, national organizations and more.
The Character Collaborative holds its annual conference every Fall, either just prior to the NACAC National Conference or (for the past two years) virtually after the NACAC Conference. Additionally, the Collaborative offers a series of courses to help admission officers plan for including character attributes in their admission process. In 2022, co-sponsored on the NACAC Podcast Network, the Collaborative will be hosting a quarterly podcast: “Character Counts: Conversations on Character in Admission.”
The Character Collaborative depends on modest membership fees to continue its work and service to the admissions profession. To find out more about membership for institutions or individuals, please visit our website.
David Holmes, Executive Director (email@example.com)
Bob Massa, Board Chair (firstname.lastname@example.org)